There's much to admire about actor Richard Roxburgh's directorial debut, "Romulus, My Father." A sensitive evocation of a childhood rendered moot by the psychological damages inflicted by troubled parents, the picture has a tranquil, gentle nature about it that's almost soothing, while offering examples of familial terror Roxburgh processes superbly.
Growing up in Australia during the 1960s, young Raimond Gaita (Kodi Smit-McPhee) strains to maintain his innocence while watching his father, Romulus (Eric Bana), confront the bipolar realities of his mother, Christina (Franka Potenta). Entering his adolescence on his father's desolate farm under the watch of his uncle Hora (Marton Csokas), Raimond is forced to assume the caretaker role when the mental stability of his parents comes crashing down and he's left without the people he's always looked up to, revealing his parents as the fragile human beings they always were.
Based on Raimond Gaita's memoirs, "Romulus" faces its most substantial challenge in compressing a life story into 100 minutes of film. The adaptation by Nick Drake is woefully episodic, skipping around the story unsteadily, trying to pick up critical psychological motivations where it can. It leaves "Romulus" an erratic motion picture that isn't able to maintain a consistent tone or emotional spine, instead wandering around this map of misery looking for narrative pieces that don't always arrive.
Roxburgh is better with individual scenes. Allowed focus to visualize the triumphs and considerable failures of the Gaita family, "Romulus" is miraculous in spurts, exploring Raimond's coming-of-age arc bite by bite. Observing Raimond strive to hold his suicidal mother together, discover American pop music, and try to process the fallibility of his seemingly mighty father, it's clear that Roxburgh has a firm hold on his actors and their interior processes. The director avoids most helpings of syrup in favor of arranging a haunting isolation for Raimond, who's left alone to mature while his world is turned upside down.
It's not all dreary afternoons for the screenplay, but the gloom is where "Romulus" unearths tremendous inspiration. Setting the days of fallen youth against the golden Australian countryside opens up a juicy vein of melancholy where Roxburgh can explore the loss of innocence in peaceful manners, refusing to allow sequences of outrageous heartbreak to be underlined by melodrama. He leaves the expressions in the hands of his actors, and they come through for him nearly every time.
The anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio) image retains an intentional soft period glow, while keeping color to a minimum. Film grain is also preserved adequately. Black levels appear to fight extra hard to stay pronounced, but image detail is quite pleasing.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio mix services the film's modest intentions very well. There's some dimension during the farming sequences, but mostly it's a dialogue-intensive movie, and the mix keeps the accents clear and separated well from the scoring.
Spanish subtitles are included.
"The Making of 'Romulus, My Father'" (7 minutes) comes armed with bad microphone work, but attempts to interview cast and crew about the experience making the picture. Though a bit rushed, there's plenty of interesting information offered here, including a chance to hear Roxburgh explain his inspirations.
"Deleted Scenes" (6 minutes) follow more of Raimond's daily adventures. These are only short slivers of excised drama, perhaps cut for time purposes.
And finally, a collection of Storyboards are included.
It's a bumpy ride for "Romulus;" the picture doesn't always satisfy the way Roxburgh is reaching. However, this is a fine debut for the newborn director, taking well-worn cinematic growing pain ideas and applying an agreeable new coat of paint.