Opening on a gorgeous starry sky high above a deserted outdoor cinema somewhere in the WA bush, Satellite Boy, the debut feature by writer/director Catriona McKenzie who most recently worked on Redfern Now, is a dreamy coming of age tale that also manages to deftly tackle Aboriginal rights in an effective but not didactic way.
Pete (Cameron Wallaby) lives in the shadow of this tattered big screen with his granddad Jagamarra, played by the venerable David Gulpilil (Ten Canoes, Rabbit-proof Fence). He finds the old stories and traditions a drag, preferring to muck about on his BMX with best mate Kalmain (Joseph Pedley), while dreaming of his absentee mother’s return from the big city.
Unlike the recent Mud, Satellite Boy wisely keeps its focus on the two young lads, rather than diluting the tale with too many adults, and is all the better for it. They form the film’s emotional core, and both do a sterling job, Wallaby in particular, showing a rare honesty for a debut performance.
Pete’s at times fraught relationship with his grandfather allows for a wonderful exploration of the clash between the old and new ways, and Gulpilil is always a joy to watch.
When a mining company shows up, threatening to turf out Jagamarra and dig up his country, the boys set off for the city on their bikes, hoping to stop the bulldozers and save the day. With an unspoken connection between them, Pete draws more and more on Jagamarra’s ways as the boys travel deeper into the bush.
While the pace is undoubtedly slow, stunning cinematography from Geoffrey Simpson, revealing the harsh beauty of the Kimberley outback in all its vast glory, and McKenzie’s keen eye for the intimate friendship between Pete and Kalmain, ensure it’s a mesmerising 90 minutes. When they face peril as they become hopelessly lost, the drama is compelling, without losing sight of the film’s inherent innocence.
Having already done the festival rounds, Satellite Boy scooped two awards at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival and a couple of nominations at Toronto International Film Festival too. It’s great to see it finally come home to Australian audiences.
Stephen A Russell