Storm Boy (Shawn Seet, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.
Based on the eponymous 1964 children’s book by Australian writer Colin Thiele (adapted once before, in 1976), Storm Boy starts off as one kind of story before quickly morphing into something quite different, far more interesting, and mostly moving (if occasionally overly manipulative). We begin in present-day Australia, where Mike Kingley (Geoffrey Rush, Final Portrait), CEO emeritus of a construction company that bears his name, faces off against his granddaughter (Morgana Davies, The Hunter), angry at a proposed development that her father – the new CEO – wants to pursue on Aboriginal land. In trying to bond with her to calm her temper, Kingley unlocks memories from his childhood that, in their conjuring of his past, force him to alter his future.
It’s in those flashbacks – which make up the bulk of the film – that the film comes alive (all due respect to Rush and Davies, both fine in their roles). There, we meet the boy version of Kingley (Finn Little), living on an isolated inlet, known as Ninety Mile beach, with his loner of a father (Jai Courtney, Terminator Genisys). Dad fishes while Mike plays, observed by an Aboriginal man, Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson, Rabbit-Proof Fence), with whom he soon makes friends. Unfortunately, the beach is caught in a dispute between hunters and conservationists, with the native wildlife in the middle. When a number of pelicans are shot, leaving three chicks without a mother, Mike insists on raising them on his own, despite the adult skepticism that greets his decision. Before long, after his tender ministrations have brought the young birds out of danger, he has three rowdy companions to play with, who follow his every move. Despite the threat of inevitable tragedy, for much of its length this is a perfect movie for lovers of interspecies friendships and cute animal videos.
The title comes from the Aboriginal name Bill gives Mike, along with the belief that the death of a pelican brings on a storm. Bill is an occasionally problematic character, sketched with the kind of mystical iconography long used in Australian films (think Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 Walkabout) – or in movies the world over in which people of color are helpmates to white leads – but Jamieson plays him with intelligence and dignity. Beyond that, Storm Boy delivers a poignant tale of childhood and innocence lost, with the pelican actors often stealing the show. Although certain emotional moments are pushed too hard – feel this way, the swelling music demands – the movie’s core is a delightful bundle of sweetness that is very hard to resist, no matter the tears that come at the sad climax. I laughed and I cried (hating myself for being such an easy mark), swept up by the sentimental tempest on the screen. If you let it, the storm could wash over you, as well.