What do you get when you cross the best parts of Footloose with your favorite Australian popcorn flick, a slightly startling aural aesthetic, and several engaging performances? Well, I don’t know what you’d get, or what I’d get, but second-generation writer/director Dagen Merrill gets Broken Hill, one of the most engaging teen melodramas I’ve seen in a long, long time.
In a sequence so arresting that well-advised post-production rewrites probably plucked it from the film’s second act and plopped it into the title sequence, we are introduced to Tommy McAlpine, an aspiring conductor and composer who helps his dad run their Outback sheep farm. Even while he’s pile-driving fenceposts, Tommy hears music—and it’s hard for him not to stop and indulge the music of the spheres, as it were.
In a wondrous treat for the audience, Merrill’s script brings us into Tommy’s mind through creative orchestration and unexpected visuals. I won’t say more than that—but the opening is an outstanding attention-getter, and the decision to include that scene in the early going is a wise one. We otherwise might not stick with sad-sack Tommy and his beau/tormentor Kat long enough to get to the magical parts of this film.
Kat’s the bored, beautiful, trouble-making American girl whose globe-tripping and rarely-together parents drag her from one exotic global locale to another in the vain pursuit of their own happiness. The minx can’t be bothered with the musically-motivated loser everyone at the local high school—even Tommy’s dad George—knows Tommy to be... until she has a somewhat nefarious need for a truck one night. In the ensuing mess, Tommy and Kat are sentenced to community service, and Tommy gets the bright idea of using prison inmates as his ticket to a music-school audition.
Connecting the Dots Well
Okay, so I can’t really sell the plot of this film as believable or even original. You know this is gonna end with melodramatic emotional revelations, familial reconciliations, a climactic musical performance (or two), and no real bad guys... even though we’re talking prisons here. But was Rebel Without A Cause really all that original? Was Footloose? No. Sometimes cinematic magic is just about connecting certain familiar dots in ways that are engagingly fresh and off-beat—leveraging and exploiting expectations, rather than defeating them outright, as a means of leading an audience through an unfamiliar territory they might otherwise not have visited. In fact, isn’t that one theory of classical music?
Several things make this musio-cinematic sleight-of-hand work. First and foremost, Merrill knows what he’s up to on the technical end. Second, he wisely casts solidly experienced teen/twenty-somethings Luke Arnold and Alexa Vega in the leads. These two are even more appealing than Kevin Bacon and Lori Singer were in Footloose, and the flipping of the roles—Singer and Arnold playing the outsiders in Footloose and Broken Hill, respectively—almost makes you forget you’ve seen this broken-family romance before.
A Film Even a Symphony Conductor Could Enjoy
Third, the script drops all the small-town bigotry and religious closed-mindedness that made Footloose tedious at times in favor of a better subject: real music, not just featherweight pop riffs. There is a genuine love of nature and sound—and people, and the things they do with their hands—behind this film. And while it’s surely melodramatic and ultimately rather predictable, and though the game Arnold never convinced me that he understood tempo, I’m pretty sure that even a symphony conductor could sit down with this film and have a good time. In fact, I’ll bet that, even while watching on DVD, ninety-five percent of viewers will stay glued to the screen through the credits until the final musical number concludes.
This is not high art—but it is first-rate light entertainment that does us the favor of treating us as though we can appreciate fine art. And that’s something in these lowest-common-denominator days.
Also of note is that the spiritual dimension of this feature film stands out more than other recent offerings. There’s nothing you could nail down to any one religion, but if spirituality is at all concerned with truth and beauty, it’s here in spades.
Broken Hill is rated PG for thematic elements and some language. I’m not sure what those thematic elements would be. Smashing car windows with watermelons? Sheep herding? Fighting parents? This is pretty mellow stuff, even considering Bambi.
Courtesy of the Spiritual Cinema Circle Greg screened a promotional DVD that included Broken Hill.