Dir: Ivan Sen. Australia, 2001. 87 mins.

Billed as the first feature film by an indigenous Australian director, Beneath Clouds is a promising debut, although its tight-lipped sense of cool tips over into pretension on more than one occasion. It deals with race relations in modern Australia without stridency and without raking up the old-man-kangaroo cliches. A respectable run in Australia at the more artsy end of the market looks assured, but the film's rather sombre mood and slow pace will not make it easy to place internationally.

The plot centres on two young loners from the outback, both of who have retreated into hard shells as a reaction against the indifference of their families. Fair-skinned Lena lives in a one-horse town, whose main attractions are the bar and the grain silo. Shaven-headed Vaughn - an Indigenous boy who is the spitting image of soccer star Ronaldo, and more into Tupac Shakur than didgeridoos - is holed up in a minimum security forest prison, serving time for car theft. The two meet on the road: Lena has just missed the bus that was supposed to be taking her to her absentee Irish father in Sydney; Vaughn has just sprung himself from jail in a milktruck.

The two reluctant companions end up walking and hitching the hundreds of miles that separate them from the coast. The director has a definite visual flair, and his take on the outback avoids the over-tinted posturings of so many Australian road movies (although he does have an unhealthy obsession with road kill - dead butterflies, cockatoos and wallabies punctuate the long journey). Sen also coaxes mainly convincing performances out of his two first-time leads, although the clipped dialogue is too often Beckett-goes-Aussie ("What are you doing'" "Nothing" "Doesn't look like nothing"- and so on).

But there are moments of humour amidst the angst. The slow thaw of these two hardbitten kids into some sort of tenderness is not an easy act to pull off, and Sen doesn't quite manage it. But by the time the downbeat parting comes, some sort of catharsis has been reached. File under "I'm looking forward to his next one".

Prod cos: Autumn Films
Int'l sales:
Axiom Films
Teresa-Jayne Hanlon
Allan Collins
Prod des:
Peter Baxter
Karen Johnson
Sen, Alister Spence
Main cast:
Dannielle Hall, Damian Pitt, Jenna Lee Connors, Simon Swan, Mundurra Weldon