Straddling the worlds of Aboriginal traditions and western law with graceful wisdom, resonant generational drama Satellite Boy joins recent Australian films 10 Canoes, Samson & Delilah and The Sapphires in spotlighting the diversity of Indigenous stories and the power of their telling. Nuanced performances by Australian treasure David Gulpilil and 10-year-old newcomer Cameron Wallaby, as well as the extraordinary widescreen compositions of vet DP Geoffrey Simpson ensure international attention for writer-director Catriona McKenzie’s serenely confident feature debut.
Just outside the town of Wyndham, in the expansive northern Kimberley region of Western Australia, young Pete (Wallaby) lives with his grandfather Jagamarra (Gulpilil) at a windswept and long-abandoned drive-in cinema. Though his elder tries to impart the wisdom of his years with such sage advice as “this is our land, it’s alive, it feels you, it knows you,” Pete has a more contemporary agenda: he wants to open a restaurant there with his absent mother, though grandfather maintains she’s never coming back.
Their uneasy truce is disrupted when a local mining company claims the land for a storage facility. With only a weekend to get to the nearest unnamed big city to plead his case to company officials, Pete sets off by bicycle. He’s accompanied by more truculent and unruly mate Kalmain (Wyndham native Joseph Pedley), whose destructive mischief has once again brought him to police attention and so is amenable to a change of scenery.
The pair soon become lost, forcing Pete to use his wits as well as the knowledge he’s picked up from Jagamarra to survive their impromptu walkabout. Arriving at their destination, Pete attempts to both save the property and salvage the relationship with mom Lynelle (Rohanna Angus), who’d rather take the boy to Perth as she pursues her dreams of becoming a beautician.
Though steeped in the realism of Kalmain’s juvenile delinquency and Lynelle’s yearning for a life removed from her cultural heritage, Satellite Boy balances these modern dilemmas with a subtle yet resonant symbolism that embraces the history and spirituality of Aboriginal tradition. McKenzie, a TV vet of Aboriginal heritage who’s been developing the script since 2005, employs a satisfyingly low-key approach that finds Jagamarra and Pete materializing subtly out of nowhere to begin the film, and disappearing into the vastness to end it, suggesting the timelessness of the struggle.
More than 40 years after his debut at 16 in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, Gulpilil adds another perf of mystery and authority to his lengthy resume, whilst Wallaby and Pedley balance youthful unruliness and engaging naturalism in equal measure.
Simpson’s gorgeous lensing on previously restricted world heritage areas around the distinctive sandstone formations of the Bungle Bungle Range leads the first-rate tech contributions. Some locations were so remote and restricted that equipment and even water had to be carried in by hand.