The greatest service one can do for a “family film” like “Opal Dream” is to not slap that condescending label on it at all. “Family” may be a useful generic stamp, but British director Peter Cattaneo‘s very good, very involving movie doesn’t deserve to be qualified as such, with the accompanying suggestion that it only measures up “for a movie of that sort.” Instead, “Opal Dream” should be considered worthwhile by any standard of dramatic narrative filmmaking–those who can’t see the larger picture will surely be missing out.
One first has to make it past “Opal Dream”‘s unpromising opening, though, where against the overwrought swells of a countrified orchestral arrangement a child’s voice-over blandly intones, “When you dream, you’re usually asleep. But out here people dream while they’re wide awake…” Oh boy, sounds like a platitudinous dozer. But soon after this introductory misstep, Cattaneo (best known for helming “The Full Monty“) focuses on the Williamsons, a unit living in the Australian Outback surviving on the meager earnings of young mother Annie’s (Jacqueline McKenzie) cashier job and father Rex’s (Vince Colosimo) much more unsteady opal mining ventures. Rex’s pipe dreams of striking rich find their echoes in the fanatical make believe of eight-year-old daughter Kellyanne (Sapphire Boyce), who stubbornly clings to imaginary friends Pobby and Dingan.
In an attempt to have Kellyanne find new, real playmates, Rex and Kellyanne’s eleven-year-old brother, Ashmol (Christian Byers—both child leads are terrific), one day “take” Pobby and Dingan out to the mines, but the plan goes awry when Kellyanne becomes convinced they failed to return home. When Rex tries to assuage Kellyanne’s fears by driving back to the mines in the middle of the night to find P & D, harsh reality intrudes: Sid (Robert Morgan), a cantankerous fellow miner, thinks Rex is “ratting” on his more prosperous mining claim and calls the cops. Rex’s reputation is ruined, the family becomes a collective town pariah, and Kellyanne, still without her friends, falls seriously ill.
“Opal Dream” has all the signs of becoming pure mush, but Cattaneo sustains interest and emotional involvement by refusing to manipulate the audience, concentrating on the multifaceted relationships between family members and developing its Power of the Imagination theme without the crutch of CGI eye-junk. Even if the end moral is a little confused (is it really a healthy thing that Kellyanne gets aided in her refusal to acknowledge the illusionary status of Pobby and Dingan?), “Opal Dream” never wavers in getting there: its unique realism contains only the sincerest hint (and not hammer) of magic.