Running barely 85 minutes including credits, Bran Nue Dae is a whisp of a musical, a brightly-colored, briskly-paced confection based on a popular Australian stage show. The songs aren't exactly the catchiest, its message of tolerance far from new, but it sure is lively while it lasts.
It's 1969 in the harbor town of Broome, and clean-cut Aborigine teen Willy (Rocky McKenzie) is torn between his mother's insistence that he become a priest and the prospect of summer love with Rosie (Jessica Mauboy). It isn't long until a real stud, cowboy crooner Lester (Dan Sultan), comes along and makes up Willy's mind for him by luring Rosie away with a singing gig in a saloon. Defeated, our young hero leaves for boarding school in Perth to study under Headmaster Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush), but once it becomes apparent that the priest has no mercy for the natives he's trying to teach, Willy hits the road, soon faced with constant trouble and temptation as he heads back home to his sweet Rosie.
There are roughly a dozen ditties littered about, ranging from hippie waterfall ballads and heritage-flaunting boarding-school anthems to a twangy cover of "Stand By Your Man, and the numbers -- as directed by Rachel Perkins -- are sprightly if fleeting. The lip-syncing is consistently transparent, the choreography is often undercut by shots that are a bit too close and cuts that are a tad too quick, and the tunes are usually more easy-going than show-stopping.
But the shake-what-you-can energy of the cast is turned on throughout, proving to be an adequate salve on those low-budget seams, and there are little touches here and there -- Lester taking a moment to fix his hair in a dressing room mirror before tearing after Willy; homeless uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo) leveraging the white guilt of two hippies to detour their vision quest and help get Willy home -- that make the whole endeavor charming enough to roll with.
As the lead, McKenzie easily sells us on his teenage naivete, although his speaking voice tends to be a little whiny at times. In contrast, Mauboy, making her acting debut as the love interest, sings more often than she talks; for a cute and capable "Australian Idol" contender, the role can't have been much of a stretch. As Willy's requisite father figure, Dingo plays his part with appropriate wiles and weariness. Rush, meanwhile, is saddled with a German inflection and generally hams things up as the headmaster on their tail. I can't quite tell if he's actually being a good sport or just owed somebody a favor, but his performance is fitting with the film's spirited tone.
Hasty though it may be, the climax matches its protagonist's idealism by making sure that there's somebody for everybody after a breathless series of revelations are dispensed, eager to send us all home on a high note and deathly afraid that it might actually touch the ground at some point. Bran Nue Dae doesn't necessarily fly high for all its efforts, but it's as colorful as it is thin and hard to ignore while it's in front of you.
In other words: it's cinematic confetti.