Director: Stephen Johnson
Stars: John Sebastian Pilakui, Nathan Daniels, Sean Mununggurr, Jack Thompson
First viewing, via DVD
There’s no better deal on Earth than the movies. For the cost of a cinema ticket, a monthly streaming subscription, a DVD or Blu rental, or whatever amount of data it takes to torrent a film, you can be entertained, educated, and elevated by everything from Doctor Strange to Pink Flamingos to Tokyo Story. With that embarrassment of riches, it’s little wonder Australian flicks fall through the cracks, and I’m as guilty of this as anyone. When Yolngu Boy was released in March 2001, it generated some really positive notices … which I roundly ignored along with the film, instead showering my not-so-hard-earned cash on significantly less well-received stuff like Dracula 2000 and Proof of Life. I might even have seen Miss Congeniality… on a discount day of course… But anyway, poor life decisions all around…
Stephen Johnson’s film follows three Yolngu teenagers living in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Lorrpu (John Sebastian Pilakui) is narrator and ostensible protagonist, his friend Milika (Nathan Daniels) has the makings of a great footballer, and his other friend Botj (Sean Mununggurr) has just returned to their community following a stint in juvenile prison. Lorrpu and Milika are on the verge of initiation into manhood, but the frustrated Botj has been ostracised from his family and pushed to the margins of the community. After sniffing petrol and setting fire to a building, it looks like Botj will be sent back to jail. The three friends decide to travel to Darwin together, but complications pepper their journey…
Yolngu Boy is an adolescent adventure/road film with an Aboriginal cast. That’s a genre you don’t see very often, and one I’d welcome more of. Adventure/road movies about suburban white kids and teens are commonplace, ranging from the resonant emotional punches of Stand by Me to the screeching obnoxiousness of the inexplicably beloved The Goonies. The Indigeneity of Lorrpu, Milika, and Botj adds interesting environmental and cultural wrinkles to this well-worn formula. On the one hand, the film is very contemporary: like Ivan Sen’s Beneath Clouds, released the following year (read our review here), it paints a topical (both then and now) and empathetic portrait of the troubles facing modern Indigenous youth, albeit with an extra layer of hormonal machismo as befitting a story about three 15 year-olds boys. On the other hand, there’s an ancient quality to the story as well. The protagonists encounter Dreamtime figures along their journey; they must apply the mythical and practical knowledge they learned during childhood to eat, survive, and navigate the wilderness; and their fractured friendship is rekindled as they shed the accoutrements of modernity and Western life. Somewhat atypical for a film about Indigenous Australians (or at least the ones I’ve seen, and barring pre-colonisation narratives like Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes), white Australia’s presence is minimal, though it’s glimpsed here and there – in artefacts of Anglo and mainstream culture, in religious symbols, and most notably in the authorities inhabiting the periphery of the story, embodied by Jack Thompson in a fleeting appearance – and its influence and impact loom large.
The film was scripted by Chris Anastassiades, co-writer of Nick Giannopoulos’ Wog Boy films and The Wannabes as well as Hating Alison Ashley, and a writer for television shows like Giannopoulos’ Acropolis Now, Round the Twist, and a lot of children’s programming. That’s a filmography I wouldn’t have intuitively associated with Yolngu Boy, but in retrospect there’s a narrative propulsion to the film that reflects a grounding in the fast-paced, mechanized storytelling of comedy and kid’s TV. That sense of propulsion is mirrored in Steven Johnson’s direction and the film’s editing and camerawork: Yolngu Boy’s visual style is wired and caffeinated, with fast edits and lively, somewhat Sam Raimi-esque camera moves. But Johnson and co aren’t being showy for the sake of being showy: that physicality of style mirrors the jittery, hormonal, impatient energy of the protagonists, and it complements rather than distracts from the work of the three leads, from whom Johnson elicits strong performances.
Ultimately, any film of this genre succeeds or fails on the shoulders of its young performers, and the three non-professional actors are terrific. Pilakui conveys conviction and the pull of duty as the ostensible leader of the group; Daniels is cocky but likeable as the football prodigy; and Mununggurr is empathetic and raw as the outsider of the group (think Raphael to Pailakui’s Leonardo and Daniels’ Michaelangelo, to borrow the parlance of our times). The cast also handles the emotional highs and lows of the story well: the ending is substantially heavier than Stand by Me or The Goonies, and the actors deliver. As expected in a non-professional cast, there are some rough edges and there’s some abrasiveness to the performances, but these add authenticity.
In summary: A hybrid of adolescent adventure, ancient folklore, and social issues drama, it’s criminal that Yolngu Boy isn’t better known, and that director Johnson hasn’t made more films since. It’s exactly the sort of film that Down Under Flix exists to highlight.
Next week: Bruce Beresford’s The Fringe Dwellers (1986).