Based on Ben Rice's novel Pobby and Dingan, Cattaneo's new film is set against the backdrop of Australian opal mining, a kind of throwback to 19th-century American gold prospecting where individuals and their families are permitted to stake claims to whatever remote patch of dirt they suspect might harbor the strike that will change their lives. Rex Williamson (Vince Colosimo) is one such miner, though, despite his vigorous efforts, the mother lode has proved frustratingly elusive, putting increasing stress on his wife Annie (Jacqueline McKenzie) and their two children, 11-year-old Ashmol (Christian Byers) and 8-year-old Kellyanne (Sapphire Boyce). What most troubles the family, however, aren't financial matters as much as Kellyanne's almost psychotic refusal to recede from the imaginary world she has created for her two invisible friends, Pobby and Dingan. Try as they might, neither mom, dad nor Ashmol can seem to shake her loose from her determined insistence that everyone — family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, townsfolk — play along. It doesn't take a film scholar to see that the family's two major concerns are due to intersect just a ways down the road, but that doesn't make it any less difficult to watch after Rex is brought up on charges of claim-jumping, turning the whole town against the family.
Cattaneo's proven knack with actors and his ability to polish even the most hardscrabble circumstances with humanistic understanding is what ultimately makes Opal Dream more than just another noble Aussie indie. Films of this sort aren't unusual in Australia — they just rarely make it to U.S. shores, in large part because their concerns are often too parochial to be considered marketable to Americans. That's somewhat true here as well, at least during the film's first half-hour, but once audiences acclimate to the particulars, they're likely to find the performances hopelessly infectious, with young Boyce and Byers impressively mature and nuanced in their feature debuts.
Admittedly, Cattaneo hasn't exactly seized the day since his Oscar nomination, but he has continued to do far steadier and more consistent work than many others currently treading water in the studio swamp. And, while
draws liberally on timeworn dramatic staples, it's the earnestness with which cast and crew believe in the material that keeps its dusty heart beating strong. Like the characters in the film, audiences aren't likely to find the priceless gem they're looking for, but, with a little bit of enlightenment, what they do find might be a good deal more meaningful.
Cast: Sapphire Boyce, Christian Byers, Vince Colosimo and Jacqueline McKenzie
Director: Peter Cattaneo
Screenwriters: Peter Cattaneo, Ben Rice and Phil Traill
Producers: Lizie Gower, Nick Morris and Emile Sherman
Rating: PG for mild thematic elements, language, and some violence
Running time: 86 min.
Release date: November 22, 2006 NY