Race relations between whites and Aboriginals in contempo Australia permeates every frame of “Beneath Clouds,” a stylish road movie ultimately undone by wooden acting and an overreliance on genre convention. Pic is sure to be controversial at home, touching on themes of racial profiling by police and a general hostility toward minorities among the rural population. Yet this first feature from Aboriginal helmer Ivan Sen won’t likely resonate worldwide the way it will Down Under. While high-profile sales are unlikely, pic could still perform well among auds drawn to stories of disenfranchised young people and/or social injustice.
Tired of her single-parent Aboriginal upbringing in a flyspeck town in New South Wales, light-skinned and blue-eyed teenager Lena (Dannielle Hall) hops a bus toward Sydney and her Irish father.
Meanwhile, at a minimum-security prison further west, young indigenous pine forest laborer Vaughn (Damian Pitt), hardened and embittered by years of incarceration and prejudice, escapes the work gang. Thrown together in the middle of nowhere, the pair gradually learn over the course of 24 hours to embrace their differences, and each other, through a series of encounters with shop owners, passers-by, and, ultimately, a pair of aggressive white policemen.
Sen has an muscular and arresting visual style, at once leisurely and intricate, forged from numerous award-winning shorts and docus since 1994 (“Dust,” “Wind,” “Tears”). He uses complex multiangle setups to dramatize the droning whoosh of passing trucks and cars, and his feel for the life force of nature as it relates to character is reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.”
Yet the unofficial but pervasive mantle of First Aboriginal Feature Filmmaker — a title at which Sen chafes — is the source of the pic’s main pre-release buzz at home. Still, anyone with Sen’s obvious talent and social awareness could have made “Beneath Clouds”– regardless of skin color.
What’s left, then, are the central perfs, and unfortunately Sen’s skill with actors is still in the developmental stage. Episodic nature of narrative dictates that either Hall, Pitt or the pair in tandem must carry nearly every scene; as both are non-pros, the results are decidedly mixed. While each looks tough enough for their roles, Sen’s puzzling reliance on an oddly modulated and cumulatively awkward rhythm of line readings impedes character sympathy and development.
Tech credits are pro, with driving score by Sen and Alister Spence working in concert with John Patterson’s complex sound design and Allan Collins’ crystalline images.