Every so often you see a movie, and it isn’t a great movie per se, but it’s filled with enough interesting people and places that you don’t entirely mind. A story can be an adventure, sure, but sometimes just being transported to a place and seeing the sights is adventure enough.
Top End Wedding takes place, fittingly enough, in the “top end” of Australia. You know, the part of the Scooby Doo head above the ear, that’s closer to Papua New Guinea and Indonesia than Sydney, that no one ever seems to talk about? Yeah, that part. We tend to think of Australia’s north and interior as a vast, uninhabited place, which is true enough, relatively speaking (Australia is one of the most urbanized countries in the world), but also comes as news to the people who actually live there.
Top End Wedding begins in 1976, in the Tiwi Islands (just north of the island of Australia and administratively part of the Northern Territory) where a young bride has ditched her traditional wedding ceremony and escaped on her aluminum (AL-yoo-MINI-yum) fishing boat with the entire wedding party chasing behind. Presumably, she’s off to the mainland.
Flash forward to the present, and a young adult aboriginal girl in a business suit is having a wacky mishap with a cruller. She gets powdered sugar all over her nice suit and wouldn’t you know it breaks a heel for good measure. If only she had some Mentos. We soon come to understand that this young professional is the runaway island bride’s daughter, Lauren, played by Miranda Tapsell (an Australian TV star who also co-wrote the script). Lauren is about to be engaged to another young professional, a lanky, tastefully bearded white lawyer named Ned, which is a name that Australian men still have nowadays (Ned is played by Gwilym Lee, Gwilym being a name that Welsh men still have nowadays).
Some wacky stuff happens, everyone’s wacky friends and parents get involved, and there’s a cute Ewok dog that is named Cher even though he’s a boy. Suffice it to say, Ned and Lauren need to visit Lauren’s ancestral homeland before they can get hitched. Top Ending Wedding is a cross-cultural rom-com, and the tone of the humor lands somewhere between My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Crocodile Dundee, and a Mentos commercial. It’s pleasant enough, occasionally worth a chuckle, and always pretty corny.
Which, to be sure, didn’t go over too well with the Sundance audience, conditioned as they are to chest-beating family drama, morose dirges, and kids in Brooklyn figuring stuff out. After a few days of that, Top End Wedding’s story feels about as profound as a knock-knock joke. I counted at least five walkouts in my screening. But Ned and Lauren’s Planes Trains And Automobiles-esque journey takes them from Adelaide to Darwin to Kakadu to Katherine and eventually all the way to the Tiwi Islands. And when’s the last time you saw any of those places on film, or the people who live there? Needless to say, they were beautiful places and quite exotic to an American like me (and probably to most Australians too — I lived in Brisbane for half a year and I’d never even heard of Tiwi). Miranda Tapsell is from Darwin and director Wayne Blair is also indigenous, and grew up in New South Wales.
True, I wish it hadn’t taken them over an hour of screen time to get us back to Tiwi. But surely the novelty of it is worth something. Seeing new places and faces is an underrated draw of a movie, isn’t it? And there’s enough of story in some of the aboriginal actor’s faces alone to make up for some of what the script lacks.
If you’ve seen a rom-com you could probably guess every beat of this one. Yes, there’s a big set piece that takes place in an airport. And as soon as I heard the title I started in with the easy ‘Straya jokes. “Wedding? Thets nawt a Wedding. THIS is a wedding.”
But you don’t see Top End Wedding because of the groundbreaking storytelling. There’s a cultural richness to it, a wonder in the sound of the languages being spoken, and a beauty of place that you won’t find in many movies.