Director Ivan Sen’s follow-up to the head-scratching, frustratingly abstract Dreamland (2009) sees him back on home soil to tell a personal tale of how the endemic indifference of our country has created a void into which countless lives empty out like broken vessels. In the Aboriginal township of Toomelah, a dusty outpost and former mission straddling the New South Wales-Queensland border, a fearless young 10 year old, Daniel (Daniel Connors), is getting mixed up with the wrong crowd. Given the flick from school because of his threatening behaviour towards another boy, he hangs around local drug-dealer Linden (Christopher Edwards) hoping to be taken seriously as a future member of a roughly assembled gang of wannabes.
Daniel’s parents are not exactly role models; his mother, like most members of the community, sits around doing little between scoring drugs, whilst his father is an inveterate drunk whose only inclination is to sit on a gutter feeling sorry for himself. Trouble arises when a man just released from jail, Bruce (Dean Daley-Jones), muscles in on Linden’s turf, placing Daniel in the middle of a potentially volatile situation. Even though the conflict is treated as another lazy distraction for these people by Sen, a sense of genuine tension is created as the two men are seemingly set along a path towards an eventual confrontation.
Idleness breeds contempt in this remote place in which people are helpless to assist their own cause; educationally and financially constrained, they sink deeper into apathy. Toomelah (2011) makes for uncomfortable viewing, but the underlying humanism of Sen’s vision offers a much needed counterpoint to the despair that grips like a vice. The ghostly remnants of the town’s past life as a mission strike a poignant note too in stirring painful recollections of the older members of the community, their identities equally confused or misplaced by discriminating government policies.
Using his own sparse compositions to create a sombre undercurrent of musical support, Sen has fashioned a film that cuts close to the bone in its examination of this profoundly sad and troubled place. The mostly non-actors occasionally do the film a disservice but their verbal interactions – spiced with plenty of profanity from the mouths of the very young – are mostly believable. Daley-Jones, an impressive lead in Brendan Fletcher’s Mad Bastards (2010), imposes his striking physical presence once again. Young Connors is undoubtedly the film’s centrepiece however; the way he holds his nerve in certain scenes, conveying the ambivalence and confusion of youth is actually quite remarkable.
Though a languid portrait of idleness that takes pains to illuminate the stasis in which this tenuous community exists, Toomelah is still strangely compelling viewing. The constantly moving camera – and fleeting out-of-focus shots that you become so used to you cease noticing them – reflects a place in which repetition is its own defence against the struggle of everyday living. Toomelah will not be to everyone’s tastes but despite glaring flaws, it’s a brave and important film in the same vein as Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah (2009). This too is a grimly persuasive social document that will provoke and sadden in equal measure. The balance of perspectives it offers ultimately is a perfect compromise: it’s inflexible, in never allowing its naturalism to be polluted by commercial considerations, and yet offers a tantalising hope for something better – the hope of re-embracing a rich and varied culture – in its final moments.