Based on a popular Aboriginal stage musical, Bran Nue Dae is about a teenage Christian’s struggle to stay morally pure in the Outback (and briefly in Perth) in the late ’60s, when wild music and loose women abound. Rocky McKenzie plays the boy, a small-town bastard who loses his would-be girlfriend to the excitement of the local bars and subsequently gets banished by his mother to a Catholic school run by the dictatorial Geoffrey Rush. McKenzie soon crosses Rush as well and flees to the train yards, where he meets boozy hobo Ernie Dingo, who promises to get McKenzie back to his native Broome. The duo hook up with a pair of oversensitive hippies who offer to drive them home out of an inflated sense of guilt over the Australian government’s mistreatment of the natives. Picaresque adventures ensue.
Director Rachel Perkins aims for broad comedy in the familiar Australian style—in the manner of Muriel’s Wedding and Strictly Ballroom—but she often overshoots, and slapstick overwhelms the movie’s satire of the infinite varieties of piety. Perkins isn’t exactly a natural for musicals, either; the big numbers are choppily shot, with no real flow to the performances. But Bran Nue Dae’s period details—the open-air movie theaters, the rigid private schools, the shanty pubs—are vivid enough to counteract most of the cartoonishness, and Dingo gives a delightfully full performance as an opportunistic drunk with a store of native mojo. Plus, Jimmy Chi’s songs are catchy (and cheerfully vulgar at times), and the story progresses smoothly, especially once the hero hits the road. The movie builds goodwill doggedly, and then pays it all off with a farcical finale with a rousing message: We’re all Aborigines! Who knew?