“Bran Nue Dae” might make for a great, campy musical, but it doesn’t translate to the big screen. The story centers on Willie, an aborigine living in Broome, Australia. Willie’s mother wants him to be a priest and sends him to Catholic boarding school (run by an insane priest played by Geoffrey Rush) but all Willie really wants to do with his life is shag his childhood friend Rosie. So, inspired by racist remarks made by the priest, Willie runs away from boarding school, back to Broome to be with the girl he loves. Along the way he runs into his Uncle Tadpole, two hippies, and a chubby h***y lady. Despite setbacks, the group manages to sing and dance their way back to Broome to face the friends and family that await them.
While the music is delightfully catchy, “Bran Nue Dae” falls short in most other filmmaking categories. Using actors with beautiful voices (like Jessica Mauboy from “Australian Idol”) the film sacrifices the believability of performance that makes musicals work. The characters in this film seem to be acting on the surface, going through the motions but not the emotions. How can an audience be expected to swallow spontaneous song and dance numbers from a character whose feelings seem forced? The film relies on glossy close-ups and wind-blown hair to produce drama, rather than the real-life emotions we should see in the performances themselves.
But the film’s failures cannot be placed solely on the actors’ shoulders. They seem to be doing the best they can with a script that asks their characters to make radical changes within seconds. Why, for example, is the priest gregarious and magnanimous at one moment, only to beat children and deride their race at the next? The style of the film feels equally forced, with funky sound effects sporadically cropping up, and awkwardly mixed musical genres. Cheap jokes (the priest pooping on the side of the road) are paired with intense, racially charged jail scenes. Each scene feels like it could belong to a different film, with the sole connection being intense cheesiness.
It’s a shame that the filmmaking falls so short, because the setting is perfect for a musical. Full of color and drama, the Australian coast tries to make up for the lack of charm in any of the film’s characters, but never succeeds.