An energetic kids film that harnesses the interior logic of children’s minds to pleasing and inspiring effect, director Robert Connolly’s big-hearted Paper Planes is currently a solid box office hit Down Under and was selected to open the Generation Kplus section of the Berlinale. With its crowd-pleasing tropes and clever use of the titular conveyance as an obvious yet effective metaphor for the simple values and pleasures in life, pic should fly to fests and international markets that appreciate quality moppet fare.
In rural New South Wales—the film was actually shot in and around the Western Australia capital of Perth—12-year-old Dylan Webber (Ed Oxenbould, from Disney’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) lives with his father Jack (Sam Worthington). Having lost his mother in a car accident five months ago, Dylan must contend with Jack’s grief-induced listlessness, which seems to have forged him in to a capable and independent child who each day feeds bacon to a majestic hawk he’s named Clive.
One day at school, his teacher Mr. Hickenlooper (Peter Rowsthorn), who insists before class—metaphor alert!—that the kids hand in their mobile devices to avoid distraction, invites a guest to demonstrate the making and flying of paper planes. When Dylan’s first attempt remains airborne significantly longer than anyone else’s, the boy is hooked.
He persuades his father to drive him through the bush to a regional competition for the World Paper Plane Championships in Sydney, where he meets Kimi (Ena Imai), a serenely confident Japanese girl who is fond of saying things like “winning and losing doesn’t matter, its about making something beautiful and surprising.” Dylan also acquires a rival of sorts in Jason (Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke), the borderline-obnoxious son of far more reasonable pro golfer Patrick (David Wenham).
Rising above adversity to qualify for the finals, it’s off to Tokyo and a flashy denouement that serves to wrap up all the plot’s loose ends, not the least of which is Jack being brought out of his shell by his son’s accomplishments.
Broadly played comic relief is provided by popular Australian actress Deborah Mailman (The Sapphires) as a former champion, industry vet Terry Norris as Dylan’s priapic, advice-spewing Grandpa, and newcomer Julian Dennison as the husky school bully who becomes Dylan’s best mate.
There really is an organized worldwide competition for paper planes, and Connolly was moved to write the first draft not only by the his own children, but the Australian bronze medalist of the 2009 world championships in Austria, Dylan Parker, and his fellow enthusiast James Norton—so-called “paper pilots” who served as advisers on the shoot and receive an “inspired by” credit.
Though primarily known as a director of more politically themed films as Balibo and Underground: The Julian Assange Story, Connolly shifts gears effortlessly to adopt a style and feel in perfect sync with the sense of wonder and possibility that is such a large part of the average pre-adolescent psyche. Oxenbould’s acting is natural and unforced, with the kids’ interaction possessing an authenticity that helps center the story. Worthington brings just the right amount of brooding to Jake in the context of the plot, and Wenham’s bemusement at his son’s precocious competitiveness is an inspired touch.
The tech package is first-rate, led by the unobtrusive effects work of John Francis at his Melbourne-based VFX shop Surreal World that vividly conveys the exhilaration of flight. Amongst the executive producers is Eric Bana, who starred in the 2007 Connolly-produced Romulus, My Father.
Originally published in Variety