A meticulous portrayal of the chaotic existence endured by two Aboriginal teens on an Outback reserve, “Samson & Delilah” is an engrossing and touching snapshot of an Australia too often left on the cutting-room floor. Whether or not it succeeds in nabbing a rumored Cannes slot, this well-mounted, low-budget romantic drama is destined to become a pillar of the fest circuit, while cultural curiosity, combined with first-timer Warwick Thornton’s sure-handed helming, should also see this effort triumph with arthouse distribs. After winning the audience award at the recent Adelaide Fest, the pic goes out Down Under in late April/early May.
Opening reels demonstrate the titular couple’s daily routine. Samson (Rowan McNamara) wakes up to country music and the day’s first long sniff of intoxicating gasoline. The youth takes a guitar from the band rehearsing outside his room, badly plays a few raucous notes and then wanders around his township, occasionally racing in a derelict wheelchair for laughs.
While Samson is all play, Delilah (Marissa Gibson) spends her day in toil. Assisting her disabled grandmother, Kitty (Mitjili Gibson), with the labor-intensive dot paintings fashionable for a distant white population, Delilah interrupts her work only when she escorts granny to the health clinic. At night, Delilah unwinds by listening to flamenco songs in a pickup truck.
The pair cross paths at the compound’s general store, and the mute Samson lets his feelings for the monosyllabic Delilah be known in a loving graffiti message. Next day at the store, Delilah lobs her would-be paramour a packet of beef jerky.
Later, a delightfully erotic scene in which Delilah surreptitiously ogles a dancing Samson clearly signals the girl’s attraction to him, though she continues to feign disinterest; it’s Kitty, not Delilah, who greenlights Samson’s romantic ambitions.
After both protags suddenly suffer severe (but separate) beatings, they go on the lam, stealing the community car to travel to the nearest white inhabited town.
Though it sounds downbeat, the pic’s opening half-hour is as amusing as it is cheerfully uncompromising. Only later, when the two exist by shoplifting and must share shelter with an alcoholic (the helmer’s brother, Scott Thornton), does calamity intrude.
The story mercilessly displays the fragility of young lives plagued by drug-addled dysfunctionality and greeted in the wider world by racial fear. But though the movie’s images are confronting, the script emphasizes that solutions are never far away, even if the protagonists can’t always see them.
Helmer Thornton’s penchant for long, wordless takes will inevitably lead some to compare his style with that of fest favorites like Tsai Ming-liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. But Thornton shows a far superior narrative grip. Despite using minimal dialogue, he avoids playing hidden-meaning parlor games on his audience and simply tells it like it is: Every shot imparts plot and character information with simplicity and intelligence.
The film has an inclusive intimacy that partly comes from the quality 35mm handheld lensing by helmer Thornton himself, which avoids any alienating wobble-cam. In the title roles, amateur thesps McNamara and Gibson are both commanding — textbook examples of transmuting inexperience into authenticity. The only jarring note is Scott Thornton’s rough perf as the derelict, though he does show a forgivable charm.
Music, from a series of eclectic sources including the helmer’s own compositions, is ultimately revealed as having narrative significance. All other credits are impeccable.