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Yolgnu Boy
2000
Directed by Stephen Johnson
Running time 88 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


Yolngu Boy tells the story of  three Aboriginal teenagers Lorrpu (John Sebastian Pilakui), Botj (Sean Mununggurr) and Milika (Nathan Daniels), best friends since childhood and now on the cusp of manhood.  Straddling the two worlds of their indigenous inheritance and modern Western culture Lorrpu and Milika are taking their place in the world normally enough and are about to be initiated but Botj is in trouble, an outsider to both white society as well as his own tribal culture.  Just out of jail for stealing a motor-bike he persuades his two friends to help him break into the local store but the escapade gets out of hand and Botj seems certain to return to jail. Lorrpu decides that they must get to Darwin to plead Botj case to tribal elder Dawu (Nungki Yunupingu).

Yolngu Boy is one of those films that are so good you wonder how they possibly came to be (surprisingly the Australian Children’s Television Foundation appears to be the major financier). Directed with great vigour by Stephen Johnson who had only directed a couple of television series episodes prior to this and has not directed another feature film since and written by Chris Anastassiades who wrote The Wog Boy amongst other inglorious crowd-pleasing fare, Yolngu Boy is a superb film which manages to meld the themes of friendship, family, Aboriginality and its relationship to modern Western society with great spirit, humour and poignancy and without the more artistically self-important strains of films like One Night The Moon.

The intertwining of the two cultures is brilliantly handled with the boys trekking through the bush from North East Arnhem Land to Darwin where the put to use many of the hunting and survival skills of their culture, at the same time returning to their childhood dream as they gradually discard Western appurtenances like mobile phones and Walkmans.  When they arrive at Darwin they find themselves eating junk food and for Botj facing the grim reality of what his father has become (and what his mother believes he is destined to be) a drunken vagrant.  The end of Botj’s story in which the grey mud of the Darwin foreshore replaces the white body paint of the boy’s hunting expedition is a powerful one.

With excellent performances from the largely non-professional cast, superb photography by Brad Shield (The Thin Red Line) and dynamic editing by Ken Sallows (Chopper) plus a stimulating sound track varying form hip-hop to orchestral music, Yolngu Boy delivers a potent account of what life is like for Aboriginal teenagers today. It is heartfelt without being tendentious, its characters are engaging without being sentimentalized and the film is entertaining, yet thoughtful, often humorous but not afraid to face real tragedy. Yolngu Boy is one of the best films on modern Aboriginal society to date.

 

 

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