There is no glossing over the setting of Australian documentarian Kim Mordaunt’s narrative debut The Rocket. There are no rose-tinted glasses to present the poorest country in Asia and the most bombed country on Earth as a happy-go-lucky child-friendly zone.
And yet this lovely Laos-set film, Australia’s selection for contention in the best foreign language category at next year’s Academy Awards, is a feel-good picture populated by vividly rendered characters who reverberate in the memory like companions from a warm and vaguely familiar dream. In his own subtle and measured way Mordaunt has pulled off a Life is Beautiful (1997), offsetting icy realism with a spirited sense of humanity.
The film follows 10-year-old protagonist Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) as he travels across Laos’ thickly forested landscape. Rugged mountains consume the horizons behind him and unexploded bombs lie scattered on the ground, lingering in a sort of surreal way, like detritus from a nightmare.
Displaced by a dam constructed by an Australian energy company, Ahlo, accompanied by his father and grandmother, befriends wide-eyed 9-year-old mischief maker Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her inebriate James Brown-obsessed uncle “Purple” (Thep Phongam).
It is through Purple’s character that the strength of Mordaunt’s screenplay and the cast’s pensive but persuasive performances are best realised. We see Purple a lot, hear him little and remember him vividly. Any number of monologues could have communicated rambling descriptions of his personality. But Mordaunt, perhaps due to his experience in documentary, understands the value of that old moviemaking mantra: do, don’t tell.
Cinematographer Andrew Commis’ organic-feeling photography trickles into a slice of life atmosphere that provides a beautiful blanket over what could have been despairingly dramatic storytelling. The Rocket finds such a poignant balance between fuzzy hearted hope and grim realism it assumes a vaguely fantastical resonance, a sort of upbeat sister piece to Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) but slighter, lower impact and more optimistic.
When, in the final act, the title begins to refer to something characters literally construct, The Rocket evolves into a left-of-centre tournament movie. Curling away from naturalistic drama and tip-toeing towards convention, it takes on an unlikely status: without question the sweetest damn film about building gigantic explosive missiles you’ll see this year.
The Rocket’s Australian theatrical release date: August 29, 2013.