Dir: Vincent Giarrusso. Australia. 2000. 85 mins.

The overlit candy-coloured shopping mall where 14 year old Shaun and his aimless school-skipping friends spend a large part of their days is so shockingly familiar it might be anywhere in the developed or semi-developed world, which gives this small-scale Australian movie a genuinely international resonance, earning it a deserved spot in last year's Cannes Directors' Fortnight.

In fact, Shaun's local mall is in flat suburban Melbourne and, though without soul, taste or any attraction that isn't strictly commercial, it offers the boy respite from a depressed mother who is "losing her marbles", two squabbling sisters who live on potato crisps and cola, and a saintly social worker who is doggedly trying to return him to a supervised youth refuge.

Petty shoplifting is hardly challenging to this intense boy, played with a thoroughly convincing raw stubbornness, hurt and dissatisfaction by Kane McNay, formerly known for his comic touch in the popular long-running ABC television series 'SeaChange'. When Shaun's father (tough Brett Swain) is about to return from a prison stretch, his increasingly detached mother (touching Nell Feeney) momentarily shakes off her torpor and plans a 'welcome home' party. But tattooed dad turns up with a new girlfriend and Shaun watches with mounting disgust as the party descends into a predictable drugged and drunken chaos.

Recognisably belonging to the Ken Loach school of micro-budget working-class case studies, debut writer-director Vincent Giarrusso (he also shares the music credit) gives his nihilistic tale a looser dramatic grip but a broader comic edge which will undoubtedly boost its shaky international chances. And, against the odds, he defiantly allows his damaged young hero a concluding moment of self-determination, a spark of hope for later use in the soulless malls of underemployed, undereducated adulthood.

Prod co: Twenty 20. Int'l sales: Beyond Films. Producer: Fiona Eagger. Scr: Vincent Giarrusso. Music: Vincent Giarrusso, Glenn Bennie. Cast: Kane McNay, Nell Feeney, Brett Swain.