When 10-year-old Daniel is asked what he’s going to do with himself, he responds: “I dunno. What can I do?” Daniel lives in Toomelah, a remote Indigenous community on the border of Queensland and New South Wales, first founded as a mission back in the 1930s. He has a distant mother and alcoholic father, and doesn’t care when he’s kicked out of school. All he wants is to be a gangster.
Toomelah returns to Australia after its screening in the prestigious ‘Un Certain Regard’ section of this year’s Cannes. Ivan Sen (Beneath Clouds) not only wrote and directed the film, but acted as cinematographer and composer, too. The result is a quiet, obviously heartfelt picture about life for those who’ve had their traditional identity stripped away and are still struggling to replace it.
The film’s actors are almost all non-professionals, and Sen gets some mesmerisingly authentic performances out of them. In fact Daniel Conners – playing young Daniel – has a screen presence that many older actors would give their botoxed foreheads for. There are limits to this technique, though, as seen when he’s required to burst into tears. (What were they going to do? Poke him with sticks until he was actually bawling?) It’s also bizarrely jarring when Mad Bastard’s Dean Daley-Jones enters as a rival criminal, Bruce. He’s the only experienced performer in the film, and his acting style is completely different to everyone else around him. It’s like a CGI character has just wandered into a hand-drawn animation.
Even once its crime plot kicks in, Toomelah is still much less overtly dramatic than the just-one-goddamn-thing-after-another grind of Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah; the occasionally overpowering music is where Sen shows the least restraint. Toomelah is at its best when it feels almost like a dreamy documentary, letting its visuals tell its story: the rusted-out cars against the beautiful landscape, or close-ups of flicking smiles on the children’s faces.
We see Daniel’s aunty sitting outside, day after day, because that’s where she grew up in the mission and she doesn’t know what else to do. We hear Daniel taught a few words of “the lingo” by someone who’s forgotten most of their original local language. These are the most heartbreaking moments in Toomelah: watching patterns repeat while knowledge fades away.