2½ stars (out of four)
If transported to another setting, "Opal Dream" could easily be Southern Gothic, a family drama lush with eccentricity, offbeat humor, oddball whimsy and whispers of madness.
But instead of the southern U.S., it is set and filmed in southern Australia, with a look and feel more reminiscent of a spaghetti western than early Truman Capote; that saves the movie from devolving completely into the cloying and overly precious. It's a deliberately quirky film made more real by its frontier, desert-town atmosphere and the comparatively dry, arid distance of its cinematic style--Carson McCullers Goes to the Outback.
Based on a novel by Ben Rice, "Opal Dream" tells of blond, delicate Kellyanne (Sapphire Boyce), an 8-year-old whose life revolves around two imaginary friends named Pobby and Dingan. Hers is a fantasy more unsettling than most such childhood diversions: She seems to devote all her leisure time and social energy to these invisible playmates. Her parents (Vince Colosimo and Jacqueline McKenzie) and even her much more down-to-earth, precocious 11-year-old brother, Ashmol (Christian Byers), are concerned about her obsession. Townspeople in this remote opal mining area where the family live are more blunt: They think Kellyanne's bonkers.
But there are two kinds of dreaming at play in the story. Rex, Kellyanne's dad, and much of the rest of the community, are all in a kind of desperate, gold-r ush quest to unearth the elusive opals, staking out claims and trying to strike it rich. Many try, few succeed, and these families live on the economic edge and see each other as constant rivals and threats.
The story juxtaposes and deftly intertwines the two fantasies. After a bungling effort to rid Kellyanne of the friends, her father repents and goes with her late one night to search for them when she says they've gone missing. He's caught hunting in a mining area claimed by others, leading to an instant charge of being a "ratter," area slang for claim-jumping. The schematic set-up here isn't hard to spot: The two visions, father's and daughter's, stem from the same deep need but now vie in conflict.
As a result, the family has to confront anonymous violence, while Kellyanne comes down with a mysterious, increasingly threatening illness. The very lives of the family are threatened from without and within.
There's a predictability and inevitable sweetness to the denouement, a familiar movie rallying cry for the unseen, the dreamer and the different drummer. But director Peter Cattaneo ("The Full Monty") also unfolds everything with a lean, crystalline detachment, supervising a cast who make the story human, believable, and moving. Young Byers as the brother is particularly interesting, mixing stoicism and earnest love for his sister.
Sophisticated cine philes aren't likely to go ga-ga over this one, but "Opal Dream" is a worthwhile family film, graced with an ambivalent, bittersweet ending and just the right touch of cinematic poetry turning on the gemstone in its title.
Directed by Peter Cattaneo; screenplay by Cattaneo, Ben Rice and Phil Traill; photographed by Robert Humphreys; edited by Jim Clark and Nicolas Gaster; production design by Elizabeth Mary Moore; music by Dario Marianelli; produced by Lizie Gower, Nick Morris and Emile Sherman. A Strand Releasing release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:26. MPAA rating: PG (for mild thematic elements, language and some violence).
Kellyanne - Sapphire Boyce
Ashmol - Christian Byers
Rex - Vince Colosimo
Annie - Jacqueline McKenzieCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times