In a remote Aboriginal community, 10-year-old Daniel yearns to be a 'gangster' like the male role models in his life. Skipping school, getting into fights and running drugs for Linden who runs the main gang in town, Daniel is well on his way to accomplishing his goal, when rival drug dealer Bruce returns from prison and a violent showdown ensues.
CANNES: Ivan Sen’s Toomelah opens on a series of close-ups of boxing trophies depicting champion fighters with fists poised in readiness for a bout, but whose feet are stuck to the trophy base.
10 year-old Daniel (Daniel Connors) is a feisty descendent of the recipients of these prizes, and the youngster is stuck in his own form of stasis; he is fast losing his links to his Indigenous heritage, and facing a limited range of life choices on the dilapidated Toomelah mission. It’s no accident that his standard response to his mother’s 'Where have you been?" and 'Where are you going?", is the all-encompassing 'Nowhere".
As Daniel, newcomer Conners is wariness personified as he challenges everyone from his teachers to his love rivals. He shows little if any recognition of his ancestors’ fight for survival when his eyes wander to a wall chart that chronicles seminal events in the tortured history of black/white relations, during another bout of detention i the lobrary. He and his friends joke about forgetting their ancestral totems, and make light of the fragility of their lingo.
Toomelah paints a depressingly familiar picture at first, though the entrenched drug use, alcoholism and violence on the mission has rarely been depicted on film with such intensity as Sen’s lens captures it here. Ticking clocks figure heavy in the soundtrack but as one character puts it, 'every c*nt’s in a hurry, but going nowhere." An Aunty returned home after decades away seems, at first, to represent a new link to a forgotten past... but the woman battles her own demons and spends her days among the cactus weeds on the site of her former house, sipping from a plastic bottle to help numb the pain of remembering, or forgetting, or both.
Uninterested in school, Daniel has little to occupy his time and so is drawn into the confidence of a small-time drug dealer (Christopher Edwards) and his band of 'plastic gangsters’. Together they fish, play video games, chop up 'stick’, and talk big, with the small-time hoods revelling in Daniel’s hero worship. The return of a formidable rival (Mad Bastards’ Dean Daley Jones) culminates in a turf war between the drug dealers, and a fork in the road reveals itself to the young boy.
Sen is an accomplished writer, director and composer, however the cinema projection is unforgiving of the film’s many issues with auto-focus (and with the fast pace of a scene taking place on a football field). Some audiences might also find the miserabilist nature of life on the mission overwhelming... but surely that’s the point. Sen immerses the viewer into the stultifying, bleak life on the mission, in order to bring home the message of the power of self-determination. The narrative treads a familiar path in its final stages, and lets a few buds of hope bloom amid the cactus of Toomelah.