Storm Boy (1976)

This Blu-ray is in my collection almost entirely by accident: I ordered Frog Dreaming from Umbrella Entertainment (and, well… their special edition of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and they accidentally sent me this instead. When I asked about exchanging it, they told me to keep it. So, hey: go support Umbrella! They’ve got a lot of region free stuff (like this one!) Deciding to watch it today was pretty much entirely whimsical.

In South Australia’s Coorong, Mike (Greg Rowe) lives with his father “Hide Away” Tom (Peter Cummins), wandering along the coast and gathering items alone. During his wanderings, he runs into Fingerbone Bill (David Gulpilil, who went all over the place after appearing in Walkabout, including The Proposition, The Right Stuff, and Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World), an Aboriginal Australian living by himself in the bush. When hunters illicitly come into the reserve hunting, Bill shows Mike to a nest of orphaned pelicans. Taking the survivors home, Mike names them Mr. Proud, Mr. Ponder, and Mr. Percival. He’s able to convince his father to let him raise the birds, but their appetite becomes too much and eventually he finds himself with only Mr. Percival. Visited only occasionally by a ranger (Tony Allison) and the new teacher in nearby Goolwa, Miss Walker (Judy Dick), Tom wants to keep them isolated, even as Miss Walker seeks to begin a more formal education for Mike.

I vaguely read (due to my general aversion to knowing too much in advance) a review months before it showed up on my doorstep, and sort of took it to be past the time it would work for me (it’s generally considered a family movie, given that the source book is a “children’s novel” by Colin Thiele), and that it seemed to be particularly special to Australian kids, or at least those of a particular age. I do actually find this sort of thing interesting: this window into what other kids in other countries or generations or what have you would have grown up with, but I’ve got a lot more to actively pursue before I wander off into the tangent of “actual cultural touchpoints in coming-of-age form”, so I wasn’t really intentionally looking for this one, and I’m not sure if I ever would have.

As the film opens, it looks much like a mid-1970s (which it is!), kid’s (which it is!) movie (obviously it’s also that). Michael Carlos’s theme is a bit saccharine, and I had a mild cloud of dread drift over me: was this going to be like the lot of boring bloody ’70s family films I’ve never had a taste for, that feel drab and interminable? As it happens: no! To my relief, the film immediately became more interesting than I expected, even if I suspect “me of the right age” would’ve had nothing to do with it, as “kid in happily limited means in the wilderness” has never been my deal. Rowe is clearly an untrained actor, but that is preferable in child actors for me when talking of limitations: I’d much rather an identifiable kid who’s a little stiff than a mugging child actor over-convinced of their talent who ends up in something like an uncanny valley. Cummins portrays Tom as a stern, taciturn working man, who has no time or interest for the rest of the world, who is only vaguely aware of the effects this choice have on his son. He clearly cares about his son, but it’s not always clear that any of Mike’s nature is clear to him.

Bill is an excellent catalyst for all of this: Gulpilil’s character, as adapted by Sonia Borg and Sidney Stebel, is actually a whole character. Bill’s life is his own: while he takes interest in Mike—naming him “Storm Boy”—it’s not to make him into some sort of “wise native” (despite the theatrical poster’s claims to the contrary). Undoubtedly, his tribe’s traditions and beliefs play a role in how he talks to Mike, but it doesn’t feel like he’s inserted to imbue some sort of “mysticism” into things, but rather to actually bring perspectives that Tom is reluctant or unable to express, and to talk of who he is for himself. Gulpilil deserves plenty of credit for this, as he throws a delightful mischievousness into Bill (particularly in his first encounter with Mike), that can give way to a much more serious state as the situation demands, without any discontinuity between the two.

Plenty is made, I’ve no doubt, of the role of the pelicans. There are moments from the opening that make it appear we’re in for exactly what you might expect from every kid’s movie about kids and pets. It made me wonder why authors are so relentlessly obsessed with making sure kids know any animal they love is going to die, and probably early and violently. While I’m in no position to contest this truth (I unfortunately grew up off a highway…), the mild sense of inevitability there was oppressive, even if well-realized. Certainly, the trained pelicans here are delightful, and believably affectionate in their birdy way, to the point that that completely irrational part of my brain started thinking, “Boy, I should get a pelican!” before the rest of it crowded out that part and screamed it into submission. More to the point, I suppose: for all that there are familiar threads here, the way that these relationships all work are legitimately interesting, and don’t feel contrived for melodrama’s sake. There are undoubtedly tense, uncomfortable, or unpleasant moments, but every moment in this one is earned. If I had kids to show a movie to in this vein, I think I might well choose this one. It’s a bit light on women (Miss Walker is essentially the only one), but otherwise there’s lots of good stuff going on here with good characters, and some solid concepts to deal with.

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