Straddling the worlds of Aboriginal tradition and Western law with graceful wisdom, generational drama “Satellite Boy” spotlights the diversity of indigenous narratives and the power of storytelling, resonating alongside the likes of recent Australian films like “10 Canoes,” “Samson & Delilah” and “The Sapphires.” Nuanced performances by noted Australian thesp David Gulpilil and 10-year-old newcomer Cameron Wallaby, as well as the extraordinary widescreen compositions of lenser Geoffrey Simpson, will ensure international attention for writer-director Catriona McKenzie’s serenely confident feature debut.
Just outside the town of Wyndham, in the expansive northern Kimberley region of Western Australia, young Pete (Wallaby) lives with his grandfather Jagamarra (Gulpilil) at a windswept and long-abandoned drive-in cinema. Although his elder tries to impart the wisdom of his years with such sage advice as, “This is our land; it’s alive, it feels you, it knows you,” Pete has a more contempo agenda: He wants to open a restaurant there with his absent mother, even though grandfather maintains she’s never coming back.
Their uneasy truce is disrupted when a local mining company claims the land for a storage facility. With only a weekend to get to the nearest unnamed big city to plead his case to company officials, Pete sets off on bicycle. He’s accompanied by his more truculent and unruly mate Kalmain (Wyndham native Joseph Pedley), amenable to a change of scenery, since his tendency toward destructive mischief has once again brought him to the attention of police.
The pair soon becomes lost, forcing Pete to use his wits as well as the knowledge he’s picked up from Jagamarra to survive their impromptu walkabout. When they eventually arrive at their destination, Pete attempts not only to save the property, but also to salvage the relationship with mom, Lynelle (Rohanna Angus), who’d rather take the boy to Perth to pursue her dreams of becoming a beautician.
Though steeped in the realism of Kalmain’s juvenile delinquency and Lynelle’s yearning for a life removed from her cultural heritage, “Satellite Boy” balances these modern dilemmas with a subtle yet reverberant symbolism that embraces the history and spirituality of Aboriginal tradition. McKenzie, a TV vet of indigenous heritage who’s been developing the script since 2005, employs a satisfyingly low-key approach that finds Jagamarra and Pete materializing subtly out of nowhere to begin the film, and disappearing into the vastness to end it, suggesting the timelessness of the struggle.
More than 40 years after his debut at 16 in Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout,” Gulpilil adds another perf of mystery and authority to his lengthy resume, while Wallaby and Pedley balance youthful unruliness and engaging naturalism in equal measure.
Simpson’s gorgeous lensing on previously restricted areas around the distinctive sandstone formations of the Bungle Bungle Range leads the first-rate tech contributions.