“The Rocket” winds through the mountains of northern Laos, the contemporary drama carrying a touch of fable and a powerful sense of place.
Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe), the 10-year-old at the center of the movie, makes an appealing rooting interest, not only because he’s sparky and resourceful but also because he challenges the superstitious antipathy of his grandmother, who believes he’s cursed.
Displaced from their village by a dam project — after viewing a heartlessly chipper corporate video on the wonders of relocation — Ahlo and his family find themselves in a barren field of tents. It’s a place they soon leave, accompanied by the boy’s fearless new friend (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her James Brown-worshiping uncle (veteran actor Thep Phongam). A former soldier in a rock ‘n’ roll suit, he’s a reminder of the secret war the U.S. waged in Laos. So too are the “sleeping tigers,” or unexploded ordnance, that the characters encounter as they cross the countryside.
Ahlo’s determination to redeem himself at a rocket festival drives the film into formulaic territory. But the specifics of that event are extraordinary: A nation once decimated by falling explosives reverses their trajectory — and makes a party of it.
There are echoes of “Forbidden Games,” if not the emotional impact of that 1952 feature, in the antiwar theme and the romantic friendship between a young boy and an orphaned girl. Australian writer-director Kim Mordaunt doesn’t always succeed at balancing the sentimental, the political and the ethnographic, but at its strongest the story is a seamless melding of history’s dark undertow and a child’s indefatigable optimism.
“The Rocket.” No MPAA rating. Lao with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. At the Landmark Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles