A verite-style coming-of-ager, “Toomelah” slowly weaves the story of a 10-year-old boy, product of a broken home, as he aspires to join a gang of older drug dealers and petty criminals on the eponymous aboriginal reservation in northwest New South Wales. Made as a solo shoot on a shoestring budget by Aussie helmer Ivan Sen (“Yellow Fella”) with non-pro actors, the meandering tale provides a quiet indictment of the miserable legacy white Australia created for its indigenous people. More ethnographic portrait than polished narrative, pic should have greatest resonance Down Under and find an offshore market at fests and alternative venues.
Child of a penniless, drug-addicted mother and an alcoholic father, aggressive Daniel (intense screen natural Daniel Connors) is suspended from school, and spends his time shadowing motor-mouth pot pusher Linden (Christopher Edwards) and his gang as they idle away the days. When rival drug dealer Bruce (impressively muscled Dean Daley-Jones) returns from prison and tries to impinge on Linden’s turf, it precipitates a violent showdown.
Comparisons to Warwick Thornton’s “Samson and Delilah” seem inevitable, although that pic is infinitely more accomplished. In “Toomelah,” the genre elements and efforts to close the tale with a positive twist feel forced, yet Sen’s nonjudgmental portrait of dysfunctional families and a community long ravaged by drugs, alcohol, forced assimilation, and the “stolen children” of the 1940s, rings wrenchingly true.
Earnest acting by the cast of amateurs creates a certain monotone that isn’t helped by the editing — or lack of it (no editor was credited on the print or in press material). But docudrama scenes showing community elders teaching youngsters their traditional lingo at the mission school, and lively musical performances with lyrics that recount the tribulations of reservation life, come off as more natural and lift the pic’s tempo. However, more expressive than any performance are the faces of the locals, which Sen dwells on at length, often in extreme closeup.
As in Sen’s debut feature, “Beneath Clouds,” the pic’s most striking element is the cinematography, which captures the unique beauty of the outback locations. An ambient soundtrack of barking dogs, approaching storms, droning planes and murmuring voices adds to the verisimilitude.
The garish music track credited to Sen has the feel of a temporary score. Scenes that unfold like musicvideos under gangster-rap tunes may epitomize Daniel’s dream of being a “bad cunt,” but evoke cringes.
Screening caught was subtitled in English as well as French, a necessity with the difficult-to-decipher idiom and accents.