Blending melancholy humor with hard-edged nostalgia, “The Nostradamus Kid” is an autobiographical film of distinction. It should do excellent arthouse biz in Australia, where its writer-director Bob Ellis is known as an outspoken journalist and political commentator, and also find appreciative audiences in selected international markets, where viewers should respond to the potent blend of wistfulness and anarchy.
For his third feature (after “Unfinished Business” and “Warm Nights on a Slow-Moving Train”), Ellis has finally brought a long-cherished project to the screen (it was originally slated for Paul Cox to direct 11 years ago).
Tale is a fictionalized vision of two formative years in the life of the filmmaker: 1956, when he was a sex-starved teenager and unwilling disciple of Seven Day Adventists; and 1962, when he got his first job and lost his virginity.
Noah Taylor, familiar from the John Duigan films “The Year My Voice Broke” and “Flirting,” is perfectly cast as a character closely modeled on Ellis in his youth, though he’s given the name of Ken Elkin. Character is single-mindedly determined to cut loose from his country bumpkin/ultra-religious background, and is not a popular member of a 1956 Adventists’ New South Wales summer camp, at which he ogles one of the pretty daughters (Alice Garner) of visiting preacher Arthur Dignam, and makes a nuisance of himself, asking “heretical” questions at prayer meetings.
His pal Wayland (Erick Mitsak) is taken with the preacher’s other daughter (Lucy Bell), and eventually marries her. A residue of Elkin’s religious upbringing is an inbuilt feeling that the end of the world may, indeed, be near.
Six years later, he has a low-paying job on a Sydney university newspaper, and has evolved into a scruffy, often grubby character whose air of seedy depravity seems to attract women. He loses his virginity in a hilarious opening sequence with a drunken pickup (Jeanette Cronin).
However, he soon becomes involved with the lovely, virginal Jennie O’Brien (Miranda Otto), daughter of a prominent newspaper editor who, not surprisingly, strongly disapproves of his daughter’s relationship. Matters come to a head when Elkin decides that Sydney is about to be destroyed in a nuclear attack triggered by the Cuban Missile Crisis, and insists that Jennie accompany him across the mountains to safety.
A coda has Elkin, now a successful playwright whose latest work is being performed at the Sydney Opera House, meeting by chance some childhood friends.
The constantly amusing and perceptive film plays almost like a cross between Woody Allen and Francois Truffaut, but with a distinctively Australian tone. Ellis himself narrates the film in the style of early Truffaut, and has his young lovers go to the cinema to see “Jules and Jim.” At the same time, his self-deprecating sexual jokes and obsessions are reminiscent of the Woodman, but without the one-liners.
Though long at two hours, “Kid” doesn’t overstay its welcome, since Ellis and Taylor create in Elkin an exceptionally interesting sad-sack hero. The strong supporting cast includes a glowing perf from Otto as the refined girl both attracted and repelled by her grungy lover; Loene Carmen as a “bad girl” who abandons her religious background and becomes a stripper/hooker; Mitsak and Jack Campbell as Elkin’s two contrasting friends; Peter Gwynne as a false prophet; and Bob Maza, memorable as a black philosopher Elkin meets in a bar.
In addition, there are numerous sharp cameos, including Cox regular Norman Kaye as a pastor and Colin Friels as a Billy Graham type. Ellis himself makes an amusing appearance.
Geoff Burton (who also shot the Duigan films) has done a fine job behind the camera, and Roger Ford’s unobtrusive production design is commendable. Chris Neal provides an attractive score.