LONDON – Disenfranchised families, displaced by water, scouring an unaccommodating landscape for some semblance of home — it’s easy to see why the “Beasts of the Southern Wild” references surfaced when “The Rocket,” a bright, appealing debut narrative feature from Australian documentarian Kim Mordaunt, blew up at Berlin and Tribeca earlier this year. As with most such loose-fitting comparisons — useful when trying to articulate enthusiasm for something otherwise unfamiliar-looking — they don’t much describe or favor either film. Set in a post-Katrina South, “Beasts” used tragedy to immerse audiences into a state of positively unearthly social decay; set in a war-scarred Laos, “The Rocket,” predicated on a bureaucratic rather than natural disaster, undercuts its exoticism with recognizable social comedy at every turn. It’s a feel-good film that only momentarily pauses to feel otherwise.
That’s not a criticism, exactly: there’s something to be said for a film that finds the sunlit positivity in poverty, and appears entirely ingenuous about it. Homes are lost, families are broken, and people die (some rather harshly) in the course of “The Rocket,” but Mordaunt can be surprisingly sanguine about such misfortune; its characters seem to suffer in service of a larger, less tangible spiritual good. Those willing to indulge the film have to accept such practicalities with a hefty side of syrupy fabulism — not for nothing has Australia submitted this as their best bet for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
It comes down, as such global stories of hard-won hope so often do, to a single child to lead the light out of the darkness, and 10-year-old Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe, an artless but charismatic discovery) is handed a gruelling symbolic load from the get-go. We meet him womb-fresh, the surviving half of a twin birthing — an involuntary status that immediately puts him on the wrong side of Laotian folklore, which dictates that twins are potential harbingers of misfortune. Ahlo’s mother persuades her own not to kill the newborn, though the burden of proof is on him — at least, according to his cantankerous gran, who blames the family’s every instance of bad luck upon him. (Credit Mordaunt for dodging easy sentimentality in at least one area: played by a scowling, squawking Bunsri Yindi, the old woman is impressively vile.)
The film’s opening stages certainly give him a lot of blame to carry. The family, together with the entire community, is turfed out of their idyllic rural settlement by the government to make way for a vast dam-building project — promises of new, improved housing are, unsurprisingly, false, as they’re relocated to an already overcrowded shanty ghetto. Ahlo’s mother is unceremoniously killed by a falling canoe in the move; his self-pity is stemmed when he befriends button-cute orphan girl Kia (Loungnam Kaosinam). Kia’s woes, too, have an alleviating factor: she’s the ward (though, in practice, the guardian) of her amiable alcoholic uncle (Thep Phongam, a comic star in his native Thailand), whose vocational passion for James Brown impersonation is little in demand in a community that still wants for electricity.
If you can already sense the cute factor and its close cousin, the quirk factor, figuring heavily into this ostensibly sad story, nothing that follows will much surprise you, as prank-prone Ahlo leads his conjoined new clan out of this informal prison in a quest for their place in the sun. (A figure of speech, of course: luxuriating in the fervid mud-and-mango-tree landscape of rural Laos, Andrew Commis’ gleaming widescreen cinematography appears sun-dappled even in nighttime scenes.) You may not exactly call the whimsical deus ex machina of a local rocket-building contest, with its all-solving prize, but it’s part and parcel of the classical quest narrative Mordaunt unapologetically pursues.
Mordaunt’s background may be in non-fiction — a training evident in the film’s textured social fabric and unshaped performances — but realism is a mode little on his mind here. For every moment where “The Rocket”‘s sweetened lyricism sticks in the throat, there’s another that’s purely, pictorially lovely: a plunging dive to the murky bottom of the existing dam, as Ahlo peruses the forgotten, built-over treasures of his ancestors, or his first vision of a tree-climbing Kia, drawing gaze upward with a floating violet trail of tropical blossom. If there’s something unavoidably pandering about “The Rocket,” at least it’s tempered with a James Brown squeal and the odd earthy environmental detail: this is a fairytale, after all, whose magic ingredient turns out to be — quite literally — bat-shit.