"Opal Dream" begins as a lovely, quiet tale of childhood innocence, but it quickly goes off the rails somewhere around halfway through. The story starts spending all its time with the grown-ups, and while they're perfectly nice people, it's just not the same.
The title tells of the mood hanging over a small Australian town where men have dragged their families in hopes of striking it rich by mining opal. This is where we find the Williamsons. Kellyanne (Sapphire Boyce), the young daughter, gets by with the companionship of two imaginary friends - Pobby and Dignan. For a while, the family tries to ignore her flights of fancy, but soon they come to enjoy the company of these not-there family members. Even the nice lady down at the store plays along, giving Kellyanne extra lollipops for her friends.
Dad (Vince Colosimo), meanwhile, has his own problems. His claim is next to that of a surly prospector (Robert Morgan), the sort that loves to yell at kids and threaten neighbors. The plot kicks into gear when Kellyanne announces Pobby and Dignan have gone missing, forcing her father to go looking - which puts him on the neighbor's property. Dad's promptly accused of being a "ratter," someone who trespasses in order to steal another's claim.
From here, the film divides itself. On one hand, we have a magical tale of a little girl stricken by a mysterious illness, presumably caused by the absence of her friends. Kellyanne's brother (Christian Byers), once frustrated by her antics, decides to chip in, passing out "missing imaginary friends" flyers. The boy's strikingly mature handling of the whole thing, understanding that Kellyanne needs him to believe, presents a hefty realism to the fantasy.
But on the other hand, we have the tribulations of the parents. Mom (Jacqueline McKenzie) is fired from her grocery store job over the ratter scandal; dad winds up in court, where he pleads his case and explains to the town his daughters fanciful nature. The problem is that the movie never takes this into magical territory - while it's always quaint, there's no "Miracle on 34th Street" finale - yet there's not enough of an examination of how life works in this Outback town to make the movie work on a "paints a portrait of everyday life" level. It's a film stuck between the two, never fully committing, and it's frustrating.
Most problematic is the finale, which involves one of those scenes where the whole town rallies around the central characters, but only after we think they won't. It's supposed to be a real feel-gooder, but the sudden shift in townsfolk attitudes is clumsy.
And again, it doesn't commit. "Opal Dream" is based on Ben Rice's novella "Pobby and Dignan," which had a somber ending; the movie ends with great ambiguity, as writer/director Peter Catteneo seems reluctant to stick to the original sadness, yet unwilling to fully change things into an all-out happy ending.
Catteneo is best known for his feature debut, the brilliant 1997 comedy "The Full Monty." In the ten years since, he seems to have struggled to recapture that magic. He's only made two other movies: "Opal Dream" and the forgettable farce "Lucky Break." Both films had potential, with charming characters and fascinating situations. But both films squandered that potential with stories that trip over themselves and ultimately lose their audiences. "Opal Dream" would've worked had it spent more time telling the story from the kids' point of view (adding more whimsical fantasy), or had it taken a lighter touch (adding more small town quirk), or taken a heavier touch (showcasing a more serious look at the solitude of the region). Catteneo just doesn't do enough with the material, and what opens as a delightful kid-friendly drama closes as a stumbly, manipulative yawner.
Video & Audio
The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer is a nice showcase for the film's random showcases for the gorgeous Aussie landscapes. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is restrained but impressive. Optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles are provided.
Fans of light, whimsical family drama will do fine to Rent It.