One can appreciate the cheerful innocence of this Australian musical, but unfortunately not much else about it. “Bran Nue Dae,” or “Brand New Day,” is a celebration of Aboriginal identity in the form of a lackadaisical road movie in which the episodes are punctuated by songs with bubble-gum melodies and nondescript lyrics. And though it’s all done up with plenty of energy, an air of amateurishness hangs over it.
The time is 1969, and the central character is Willie (Rocky McKenzie), a young Aborigine who’s sent off by his fervent mother to a Catholic school in Perth to study for the priesthood although he has eyes for girls of his age. There the rigid, overbearing Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush) takes him under his wing.
But Willie can’t tolerate the regimentation or the stifling of his natural appetites, and runs away, joining up with an elderly scalawag who calls himself Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo) to make his way home; the unlikely duo eventually take up with a couple of hippie travelers (Tom Budge and Missy Higgins), copping a ride in their van after Tadpole pretends to have been hit by it, with the German guy less receptive to the idea than his more mellow mate is.
The remainder of the picture is an episodic shambles, with the group repeatedly getting into trouble with locals and police as they press on and periodic cutaways to Benedictus as he follows in their wake, intending to snatch up Willie and take him back to the school. Almost every episode involves a dance-and-dance number, most with unsubtle messages about the treatment of the Aborigines broadcast in the lyrics. Some of these offer momentary pleasure, but there’s a sameness about them that eventually palls, and when the picture’s over you won’t remember any of them.
The effect isn’t aided by Rachel Perkins’ sledgehammer direction, which pushes every point home insistently, and fails to elicit performances of professional quality from what appears to be a largely amateur cast. The major exception is veteran Rush, but he’s actually one of the worst offenders, chewing the scenery as though his career depended on it. Dingo tries too hard for lovable eccentricity—he’s like Fred Sanford reborn—while McKenzie is certainly boyish enough but lacks the acting chops to carry the movie. The technical aspects are passable but no more.
“Bran Nue Dae” winds up seeming like a high school musical—not the Disney one, but the sort you’re likely to encounter in any small town.