It may seem an odd comparison, but I think the job of a film critic can be likened to that of a treasure hunter. Both spend days, even weeks, wandering through the wilderness finding nothing but rusty old cups and saucers – or in cinematic terms, clichéd and derivative pictures which range from average to just plain awful. See my review of Bloodrayne: The Third Reich (Uwe Boll, 2010) for example, which is the equivalent of digging up a waste container full of maggots. But watching Storm Boy I felt like Indiana Jones. Somewhere out there in the dense jungles of cinema I’ve just found the equivalent to The Ark Of The Covenant, or The Holy Grail – in cinematic terms, a forgotten masterpiece.
I truly can’t remember the last time I saw a film as beautiful as Storm Boy. I’m not just talking about aesthetics either, although the visuals, courtesy of DoP Geoff Burton, are stunning. No, I’m also talking about the heart-warming nature of the story, the sincerity of the characters and the universal message that love and friendship conquer all. I normally hate the sort of family friendly films which hammer these messages home, as they normally do so with a heavily saccharine hand, condescending their audience with ‘values’ that would feel more at home in the classroom than the cinema. But Storm Boy really is a film that I can’t wait to introduce my family to, because I know it has something for everyone. It treats kids with intelligence and maturity, presenting them with well-rounded characters who approach complex situations with real-world understanding and depth of feeling. It’s a film of substance, which doesn’t shy away from or sentimentalize the inevitable sadness which must end the tale. And above all it’s tender and honest, and your kids deserve that.
The story follows a young boy named Mike (Greg Rowe) who lives with his father Tom (Peter Cummins) in an isolated shack on the deserted coast of Coorong, in South Australia. Theirs is a reclusive life; Mike doesn’t go to school, can’t read or write, and therefore doesn’t have any friends. He spends days walking along the coastline, collecting wood and watching the birds. One day a pelican mother is shot by poachers and Mike adopts three chicks, which he names Mr Proud, Mr Ponder and Mr Percival, the latter of which he forms a strong bond with. Mike also meets an Aborigine man named Fingerbone (David Gulpilil), who lives illegally on the reserve. Mike and Fingerbone form a sensitive friendship, built around the pelicans, which they both wish to protect. One day Tom decides that the pelicans are eating too much fish and he sends them out into the wild… but Mr Percival returns, much to Mike’s delight.
Storm Boy is filled with breathtaking landscape shots, and for such an intimate story director Henry Safran lends the film an incredible sense of space. Exterior shots take in the entire wealth of the coastline, which is imbued with a soft pink glow as the sun sets over the rippling ocean. Nature is evoked through a subtle palette, and while the texture of the film could be described as romantic it also accommodates darkness, such as in the shadowed scene where Mike overhears a dramatic family revelation. The score by Michael Carlos is also quietly touching, with a delicate piano melody playing over a montage of Mike playing ball with Mr Percival proving especially effective.
The performances in the film are terrific. Gulpilil, who was first seen in Nic Roeg’s stunning coming-of-age drama Walkabout (1971) and the Dennis Hopper Ozploitation vehicle Mad Dog Morgan (1976), imbues Fingerbone with a sense of tradition and pride, a cosmic relationship with nature and a pensive understanding of Mike’s conflicted emotion. He is primitive but also learned, a teacher willing to be taught, and a companion willing to fight for his beliefs. Gulpilil anchors the film with an astonishingly humanistic and magnetic performance, but his work is beautifully complemented by Rowe, who lends Mike a naivety and goodwill which is instantly engaging. It never feels like watching a performance, such is the level at which you buy into this doe-eyed boy as a detached and lonely soul. His discovery of friendship feels real and it’s a shame that Rowe never became a bigger star.
With a layered screenplay which avoids cliché at every turn, Storm Boy is one of those rarely perfect films in which every element works. When the film finished I embarked upon some research to find out about its making and history. I read that the pelican who had portrayed Mr Percival, later housed at Royal Adelaide Zoo, had died in September 2009. I think it’s a testament to the power of the film that upon reading this news a deep sadness overwhelmed me, and tears formed in my eyes. I suppressed them, but acknowledged what this meant. My attachment to Storm Boy isn’t just fleeting; this is a movie which will live and grow with me forever. Like I said… it’s treasure, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Perfect transfer but sadly no extras, not even a trailer. Sorely disappointing.
Storm Boy is out on DVD 23rd May 2011.
Director: Henri Safran
Stars: Greg Rowe, Peter Cummins, David Gulpilil
Runtime: 88 min