Bran Nue Dae (Freestyle Releasing, PG-13)

Unfortunately, sincerity is not enough to guarantee quality, and the songs in particular have not stood the test of time.

If good intentions and enthusiasm were all that were required to make a good movie, then Bran Nue Dae would be a sure-fire hit. Unfortunately, it’s lacking in other things that people tend to expect from musical films—like memorable songs, skillful dancing and characters that are more than lazy stereotypes—a fact that severely limits its appeal.
Bran Nue Dae is a mash-up of several well-known cinematic genres—the coming-of-age movie, the road movie and the social consciousness movie—with singing, dancing and lots of slapstick humor added in. Set in the summer of 1969 on the West Coast of Australia, the story centers around an Aboriginal teenager, Willie (Rocky McKenzie), who runs away from his boarding school after being caught stealing food. But there’s more at stake: Willie longs to be with his girlfriend Rosie (American Idol runner-up Jessica Mauboy, whose performance is the best thing in the film) whom he fears he will lose to a slicker rival, the rock singer Lester (Dan Sultan). He also desperately misses the natural pace of life back home, as opposed to the regimentation of school.
The school is run by the over-the-top German priest Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush, whose talents are wasted in this egregiously silly role) who sets out to capture Willie and bring him back. Fortunately, Willie is aided in his hero’s journey (of over 2,000 miles, from Perth to Broome) by a wise but frequently drunk Aboriginal elder, Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo) and a hippie couple (Missy Higgins and Tom Budge) who give Willie and Uncle Tadpole a lift in their van.
Many a successful musical has been built on a plot no more distinguished than this one, but they had something Bran Nue Dae doesn’t: catchy songs and impressive dance sequences. Instead of being a fount of melody, this film is more of a song desert with exactly one memorable song, the best lyrics from which I will quote here: “There’s nothing I would rather be/ Than an Aborigine/ And watch you take my precious land away.” Not bad—and we hear it several times in the film—but the rest of the material sounds more like something high school kids might have written for their class show. The dancing is sometimes lively but also very sloppy, a characteristic that seldom plays well on film.
It’s too bad Bran Nue Dae is not better, because it seems to be a heartfelt effort. According to the film’s website (, the story reflects the true experiences of Jimmy Chi and other writers of the play on which the film is based. Unfortunately, sincerity is not enough to guarantee quality, and the songs in particular have not stood the test of time. They may well have sounded new and fresh at the stage show’s premiere in 1990, but today they seem like just another eclectic set of pop sing-alongs that make no particular impression on the listener.
Bran Nue Dae was a huge hit in Australia (as was the stage play upon which it was based), so if you’re channeling your inner Aussie or are intrigued by the possibilities of an “Australian-based, music-driven road movie/romantic comedy” (quoting from the film’s web site), then you may want to check it out. Otherwise I recommend giving this amateurish mess a wide berth. | Sarah Boslaugh

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