With a winning streak of wry humor and a proudly humanist outlook, “Lucky Miles” throws refugees, people smugglers and border-patrol soldiers into the outback and emerges with entertaining and gently thought-provoking results. Free from any tub-thumping on the hot-button issue of asylum-seekers Down Under, this accessible debut by writer-director Michael James Rowland can expect to clock up significant fest mileage following its world preem at Adelaide. Pic should click with upscale auds on mid-year local release, and offshore niche play looks possible.
Set in 1990 and based on real incidents from around that time, the pic opens in high gear as Iraqi and Cambodian refugees are hastily offloaded from an Indonesian fishing boat. Landing point is supposed to be near Perth, Western Australia, but before anyone can figure out they’re 1,500 miles short of the target, the rickety tub disappears.
Only survivors of a police round-up are Iraqi engineer Youssif (Rodney Afif) and Arun (Kenneth Moraleda), a Cambodian who believes his Australian father, last seen 20 years ago, is now living in Perth.
Speaking English well enough to establish mistrust and facing certain capture near the coast, the duo head into the desolate hinterland. In a strained coincidence, they bump into Indonesian sailor Ramelan (Srisacd Sacdpraseuth). He tells them his boat has sunk, and his hot-tempered captain, Muluk (Sawung Jabo) has taken off in another direction with sidekick Abdu (Arif Hidayat).
Third set of figures in the ruggedly beautiful landscape is a border patrol unit staffed by laid-back army reservists. Film’s biggest laughs are wrung by the benign incompetence of leader O’Shane (Glenn Shea) and the droll observations of underling Tom (David Mununggurr) as they casually mop up illegals.
Most time is spent with Youssif, Arun and Ramelan, whose feuding, fussing and fighting is gradually replaced by cooperation as the survival game intensifies. Some of their discussions about the benefits of cross-cultural understanding are borderline prosaic. A series of wordless still frames and jump-cut sequences gets the message across better: There’s one marvelous passage in which Youssif inspires wild celebrations after fixing a broken-down car with the unlikeliest of materials.
Engaging perfs by relative unknowns and expert editing by Henry Dangar draw the disparate parties to a collision point that’s both tense and touching. Scripters Rowland and Helen Barnes wisely choose not to wrap everything up neatly, and come up with a memorable final line.
Lensing is technically crisp, belying its Super-16 origins. However, subtitling (about 10% of the film) is often difficult to read, and almost impossible against bright backdrops.