IN a strong week for home entertainment releases, it would be easy to miss two of the better independent movies that emerged last year. The first, The Rocket (M, Curious, 79min, $29.99) is a small Australian gem filmed in Laos and Thailand, and spoken in Lao. It may not jump off the shelf but a raft of audience prizes at film festivals around the world — and not merely the niche festival prizes — speak to its achievement.
Director Kim Mordaunt and his partner, producer Sylvia Wilczynski, have crafted a beautiful little fable about the dispossession of a Laos family and its journey to a new life, led by the 10-year-old Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe).
This is a simple offering from another world that draws on Mordaunt’s career as a documentary filmmaker to bring together a winning, and seemingly authentic, mix of the political, historical, sentimal and humorous.
Not everything the film is trying to say hangs together but the entertaining lead performances and an uplifting conclusion pull the viewer through.
At the recent AACTA Awards, The Rocket was the second most nominated film behind The Great Gatsby and was ultimately swamped by Baz Luhrmann’s film. The Rocket won’t polarise viewers as distinctly.
Ryan Coogler’s debut feature film, Fruitvale Station (M, Roadshow, 82min, $39.95), was a darling of the US independent sector last year and, on the face of it, one may ask why.
This is another tale of a young black man coming to grief at the hands of a brutal authority.
But Fruitvale Station is based on a true story, re-creating the final day in the life of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old who was celebrating the new year with friends in San Francisco.
While going home on a train, he was baited in an innocuous fight and detained by police at the Fruitvale station in Oakland, where he was shot by a panicked transit cop.
A confronting clip showing his final moments precedes the film and seems at odds with the story that follows, a portrayal of a busy day for a largely polite and charismatic kid who, like so many young black men, has done prison time.
Coogler, a young film student at the University of Southern California, suggested to Forest Whitaker they dramatise Oscar’s final day, which they have done with the sort of tempered hand you may not expect from a new film graduate. Oscar ticks off his jobs and reflects on a past selling marijuana. He’s at a crossroads and about to make the “right” decision. He frustrates his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer), yet you can see why they adore him.
Michael B. Jordan (who played Wallace in The Wire, all those year ago), imbues Oscar with a likability that means the film isn’t full of the anger and heat it might have contained. The questions raised are largely rhetorical. Coogler’s eye is subtle and, of course, the film paints the protagonist positively but not in the way of hagiography. We see Oscar’s potential is enormous and his death is futile. A heartbreaking final shot makes certain of that.