The debut feature from Michael James Rowland, Lucky Miles follows a boatload of asylum seekers cynically dumped on the vast, barely inhabited West Australian coast. Scenically, it's terrific, with gorgeous sunsets and a rich gallery of inhospitable terrains; dramatically, it's less satisfying, for Rowland bypasses the brute politics and despair of people smuggling to focus on the essential niceness of an international bunch of lost souls, both foreign and local.
The result is a work that is unexpectedly lightweight, and often as meandering as the wanderings of its lost characters.
Set in 1990, before the issue of immigration became such a hot issue worldwide, Lucky Miles emphasises humanity with a comic touch, something which could make it more accessible to a wider audience at home. That said, its theme, unknown cast and many subtitled scenes will restrict it to arthouses (it is pencilled in for July/August), where audiences will possibly expect a tougher analysis than it delivers. Philip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence featured similar desolate landscapes, but his desperate travellers had a carefully explained political agenda.
International interest in this latest Australian odyssey could be highest in Asia; the film's humanist feelgood message also makes it a definite prospect for festivals. Lucky Miles opened this year's Adelaide Film Festival.
When a piratical Indonesian fishing boat captain (Jabo) drops his illegal human load on the unfriendly Australian shore he advises them to catch a bus to Perth. Of course, there's no bus and no road - just, in the words of a local, 'plenty of bugger-all'.
The new arrivals split on national lines - Iraqis one way into the wilderness, Cambodians another. Both groups realise they have been duped.
Next day the Cambodians stumble upon a remote pub and politely enquire after bus tickets. Arun (Moraleda), a young man in search of his never-met Australian father, by chance escapes the inevitable police round-up and runs into the desert.
There he stumbles upon determined, educated Youssif (Afif), last of the Iraqi group still at large; and Ramelan (Sacdpraseuth) who is the fishing boat captain's son (the vessel sank through Ramelan's moody inexperience).
These three form a brittle alliance, wandering together in 49-degree temperatures, tracked by a bumbling trio of local army reservists ordered to bring them in. Arun has a dubious hand-drawn map, but it's not until Youssif discovers a real map in an abandoned tin shack that they realise the size of the country and the hopelessness of their plight.
There's plenty of danger, but Rowland avoids despair or grief or (highly likely) unhappy outcomes. He reveals mere glimpses of the main characters' back stories, so current action dominates. As this action soon settles to unplanned wanderings, sometimes in circles, a sense of hopelessness and inevitability descends.
The local Australians are portrayed as unconcerned or drunk, the trackers are just as incompetent as the outsiders they are hunting. It's an amusing perspective to take, but is ultimately unhelpful to the dramatic momentum of what proves to be a longish narrative.
Subtitles are handled well, given all the nationalities. Many of them are not 'sub', but positioned on the screen beside the character who is speaking; an excellent device that particularly assists in shots where several characters are interacting.
The multi-national cast acquits itself well, with the increasingly dishevelled and wild-eyed Afif as the standout performance.
Rowland and his editor Henry Dangar experiment with jump cuts on several occasions, but it's an uneasy idea when the illusion of time passing slowly is so crucial to the telling of the story.
Unequivocally more successful is the sweeping photography of Geoff Burton, who contributes magnificently pounding beachscapes, endless dry-as-dust deserts, rock-strewn mountains and piled-up sand dunes to convey the full drama of the cruel, unforgiving Australian nothingness.
A stirring mix of ethnic music from composer Trilok Gurtu helps the intensity of the action scenes.
Short Of Easy Pty Ltd
Film Finance Corporation Australia
South Australian Film Corporation
Adelaide Film Festival
Michael James Rowland