There’s a tricky balance to be found in Australian documentarian Kim Mordaunt’s impressive narrative debut “The Rocket.” Mordaunt, who returns to Laos after exploring the country in his documentary “The Bomb Harvest,” tells a tale that’s both humanistic and soulful, yet political and socially aware. Tip the scales in either direction and your tonal equilibrium is thrown out of order. And that’s perhaps what makes “The Rocket” so special; it’s a thoughtful, well-observed drama that contains many painful struggles and hardships, quietly chronicles third world poverty and social inequities, and yet never condescends to preach or teach. In fact, when the beleaguered protagonists finally receive some much-needed respite and joy, the payoff is well-earned.
In rural Laos, a young boy, Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe), is unknowingly born into bad luck. Local superstition dictates that twins are evil omens and the children should be killed off. Ahlo’s seen as doubly rotten because his twin brother is stillborn. The boy’s grandmother Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) pleads with his mother, Mali (Alice Keohavong), to get rid of this harbinger child, but she resists and nurtures him instead. 10 years later, still poor and disadvantaged, Ahlo and his family, along with his father Toma (Sumrit Wari are relocated by the government from their village -- the local Australian corporation that essentially owns the area is planning on building a dam and flooding the area. The family and villagers are assured new housing and money to compensate for their troubles, but these guarantees end up being empty promises, and beleaguered villagers are brought to live in squalid slums.
Ahlo’s family’s difficult exodus becomes tragic when his mother is killed in an accident while trying to cross a mountain with all their possessions. Cursing Ahlo, his grandmother once again admonishes him as a cloud of misfortune around the family and blames the young boy for his mother’s death. Stricken, the father can do nothing apart from help his family finish the journey.
The makeshift ghetto they are forced to endure is arduous, with no proper sanitation, running water or electricity. To boot, Ahlo’s inquisitive and vivacious yet mischievous nature gets him in dutch with the neighbors. And with tensions already running high, a small unintentional insult transforms like a brush fire into an outraged affront and a show of violent force. Now scorned and despised by the community even more so than the resident misfit, James Brown-loving weirdo Purple (Thep Phongam) and his niece Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), the family is forced to set out once again to look for shelter, food and a place to call home. With the legacy of war all around them -- Mordaunt clearly referencing the consequences of conflict he documented in “Bomb Harvest” -- this new family unit, Purple and Kia also in tow, face several calamities on their journey. But their circumstances could soon change.
An exciting and lucrative yet dangerous rocket festival is on the horizon, and to prove he is not the cause of all disasters, Ahlo enters the annual contest in hopes of bringing hope back to his family.
While tonally in the same vein as, say, “The Kite Runner,” "Turtles Can Fly" or “Tsotsi,” with similar circumstances of resolute humanism in the face of bleak hardship, “The Rocket” is not just another enlightened third world country movie. Any political commentary is tertiary to the story of family, love and, yes, overcoming odds. While the film's emotional and celebratory big finish is perhaps predictable and feel-good, it’s joie de vivre is genuinely well-earned. Furthermore, there’s tonal balance throughout. Many bleak hardship movies can be relentlessly oppressive (Sundance hit “Frozen River” with Melissa Leo comes to mind), whereas Mordaunt contemplatively observes struggle without ever employing a heavy hand to underscore it. There are also naturalistic joys and humor to be found that feel like organic life moments rather than well-calibrated and crafted moments of comic relief.
In fact, this is exactly where Mordaunt’s film succeeds where others may fail. There’s a fundamental integrity and respect for the characters, the situations and the overall milieu. “The Rocket” never exploits its characters’ burdens and catastrophes, instead treating them with a straightforwardness and virtue. Well-shot and well-scored, Caitlin Yeo’s original music is particular affecting and beautiful without dipping into the sentimental or treacly. It imbues the expressive, yet impartial movie with a resonant soul.
Mordaunt’s eye indicates a thoughtful filmmaker able to listen to the winds of what a movie needs. Effortlessly natural, his workmanlike craft carries the capacity to keep an ear open to happenstance. He coaxes tremendous lightning-in-a-bottle performances out of the children in the film that are always affecting and never feel forced.
Endearing, gripping and heartwarming, “The Rocket” recently won the "World Narrative Competition" prize at Tribeca, and it’s easy to see why. The picture is crowd pleasing and enjoyable, but admiringly respectful and carefully considered. A deeply accomplished first narrative feature, “The Rocket” will hopefully make a bigger splash when it inevitably gets picked up for distribution later in the year. [A-]