{film} broken hill


…and an absence of glamour.

Luke Arnold as Tommy McAlpine and Alexa Vega as Kat Rogers in Audience Alliances musical drama Broken Hill. Image: Matt Nettheim

A gifted teenage composer (Tommy), dreams of being accepted into the famous Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Unfortunately, a good band is hard to find in the middle of Outback Australia – until a strange incident involving flying watermelons leads him to a group of talented prison inmates. ~published summary by H. Rose (IMDb)

Plenty have pegged Dagen Merrill’s 2009 film Broken Hill as a formulaic small-screen feel-good drama—as if this is necessarily a bad thing. Nor is the accusation wholly accurate. A family channel submission would have a excluded two important aspects to the film. As it is, I think the film works for young audiences.

Luke Arnold as Tommy plays the Dreamer convincingly. With a faraway gaze, a youthful (almost childlike) verve, a smile of absolute delight he transcends the limits of his rural home in Australia. Even as the inescapable is acknowledged, Tommy’s determination is equally impossible. He is driven, partly because he is impossible—wonderfully improbable. Or is he?

Luke Arnold as Tommy McAlpine in Audience Alliances musical drama Broken Hill. Photo Image: Matt Nettheim

One of the wonders of the film is how much Tommy is a product of his surroundings. Not the “uncultured” small town, but the greater vista and history of his homeland. He isn’t impossible, and, ultimately, what he needs isn’t necessarily elsewhere. The story is lovely in how it strives to find value in what already exists, in places that are small or marked uncivilized. Tommy’s mentor and the music teacher at the school is aboriginal. Tommy goes to do community service at the prison, where unexpected beauty exists. Tommy meets and finds encouragement from a prisoner who “lost” diamonds he was accused of stealing and only seeks means of escape. The forgotten and the forsaken and the lost echo the feelings and trajectory of the hero, Tommy.

The echoes are transparent for the older, more critical crowd, and as devices they lack sophistication in the mechanics of plot. However, I prefer the error of accessibility in a film that would inspire young people to pursue their dreams both within their environs and beyond.

By finding an ending more probable than impossible, Broken Hill moves from a whimsy of dream to hopeful reality. We know the formula where some great talent, some diamond in the rough, finds his or her way to the great urban center where they obtain glory and redemption for all that hard work. And we sigh and rarely believe its potential in our own lives. The characters are mythical, legendary, other. After the marvelous experience of witnessing Tommy and his musicians glimmer in the stage light, the film settles. And while they do end up in a great urban center of Sydney, they aren’t in the iconic Sydney Opera House, and there is no Conservatorium scout in the audience. There is his father, and his teacher.  But what is hopeful about missed opportunities? Because there was a key opportunity missed, an initial goal unfulfilled. There is an absence of glamour. We return to the argument Tommy has with his father (Timothy Hutton) when the small-town hero shares the time-worn story of the injury that held him back from playing for the big leagues, from becoming someone. Tommy wants to know just how things went wrong for his father whom we have already seen to be a prince among the locals; he owns his own future, married well, has a gifted son who loves him, is a celebrity. Opportunities shift and dreams become flesh, and it is not to inglorious result.

The other unexpected aspect to the formula that is Broken Hill is in the romantic drama between Tommy and Kat (Alexa Vega). Tommy is obsesses over Kat from afar. His best friend Scott (Rhys Wakefield) pushes him to ask the American beauty out. Yep, a big school dance is in the offing. But Scott’s Cyrano approach is painfully embarrassing. And what gets Tommy on Kat’s radar is that he has a truck. It is actually his father’s, but he has the keys and the crush. He stupidly allows himself to be used. Kat would then leave Tommy to get arrested, obvious in her careless manipulations, and while his attraction isn’t fully extinguished, Tommy becomes wise, cautious, and repelled. Unlike Scott, Tommy doesn’t excuse her because she is “hot.”

The relationship between Kat and Tommy is given time for recalibration with each re-evaluating their assumptions of the other. The development works thematically, the initial daydream shifting into a workable reality that could still inspire a happy ending. Broken Hill is ultimately pragmatic. There could still be the romance, but Tommy isn’t completely the fool, no matter how hot Kat is. He would pursue his dreams, but it takes work,  humility, and great deal flexibility in vision.

With a film about a talented young composer, the music composed must be good. And it is. I like the different forms it finds, both elegant and rugged. I like the hands that carry it. And as a character in itself, the way the piece Tommy composes develops.

The photography is lovely. There is enough of the landscape to enthrall without becoming the main course. The pacing, editing…little if anything in the film is unexpected or erroneous. The transparencies, any predictability, they are not unpalatable. Even the young reader of film will be saying, “of course,” but to comforting effect.

That happy ending is noticeably off-center, unusual to formula. Yet, in the end, Tommy has everything that matters, including his dignity. His dreams now attainable are perhaps less glamorous, but they didn’t have to sparkle, they only needed to serve his desires—for acceptance, for freedom, to be.

Broken Hill (2009)

Directed by Dagen Merrill

Produced by Chris Wyatt, Julie Ryan

Original Music: Christopher Brady

Cinematography: Nick Matthews

Film Editing: David Ngo, Mike Saenz

Starring: Luke Arnold, Alexa Vega, Timothy Hutton, Rhys Wakefield

Rated PG for thematic elements and some language

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes.

IMDb. Wiki.

{photo images via Matt Nettheim at fanpix.net}

One Comment Add yours

  1. tuulenhaiven says:

    I want to watch this for the scenery – I love films set in Australia. Thanks for the review – I hadn’t come across this one yet.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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