When Michael Kingley, a retired businessman, sees images from his past that he can’t explain, he is forced to recall his childhood memories and how, as a boy, he rescued and raised an orphaned pelican, Mr Percival.
Arriving just in time for our locked-down Easter holidays, this film about self-isolation, loneliness, and our enduring connections to the planet is clearly aimed at children and families, although I’ll warn you now it’s a bit of tearjerker – and this despite pelicans’ distinct lack of photogenic appeal.
Their beaks are massive, they waddle about, and despite Storm Boy’s best efforts at snuggling, each bird is a collection of feathery angles rather than squidgely cuddly.
The young Storm Boy, Michael (Finn Little), lives in a ramshackle wooden house on a beach in Coorong in South Australia. It’s the 1950s, and after the death of his mother he has been taken by his taciturn and broken father Hideaway Tom (Jai Courtney) to live in isolation away from the town.
There is some home schooling, and many nights in front of the fire while gorgeous sunsets or screaming gales frame their house outside. By day while his father fishes from their small motorboat, Michael plays on the beach or takes his little raft around the shallow bay.
It’s on one of these trips he meets Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson), an Aboriginal man living alone in a tent on the dunes, and discovers three pelican chicks whose mother has been shot by hunters. He takes them home, where he and Bill use the outboard motor to mash up fish which Michael then feeds to the still-blind and featherless chicks with a pipette.
The film is based on Colin Thiele’s novella, familiar to generations of Australian schoolchildren. It was previously filmed in the 1970s, with that version considered a triumph of the Australian New Wave; I haven’t read or watched either, though the device employed in this new Storm Boy – frequent flash forwards to the older Michael (Geoffrey Rush) relating his pelican adventures to his ecologically-minded granddaughter Madeline (Morgan Davies) – is apparently a new addition.
(In the first film Fingerbone Bill was played by David Gulpilil, who has a tiny cameo here as this Fingerbone Bill’s father.)
Michael, now retired, has come home to vote on the fate of the land where he grew up. His son-in-law Malcolm, heading up Mike’s old company, wants to allow sustainable mining; protestors demand it be left as it is. Soon memories of his childhood with the pelican babies resurface, reminding him what the area meant to him.
The 1950s scenes are so beautiful and absorbing (I’ve already found myself rewatching those and fast-forwarding though the rest) that the sudden returns to the present often jarr, the parallels between the timelines sometimes too obvious. Both Michael and Madeline lost their mothers and both are alienated from their fathers; while the threat to the environment in the present day has echoes of the 1950s vote between turning the area into a bird sanctuary or increasing hunting.
The two timelines do highlight how battles thought won are always up for “debate”, as well as the timelessness of the movie’s big themes of misplaced grief, and solitude versus loneliness. Though these have parallels within the 1950s storyline anyway. Both Tom and Bill have voluntarily removed themselves from their communities – “I didn’t much like what happened to me in the world” Bill tells Tom – yet seem to be wistfully regretful.
An expertly-handled combination of mysticism and realism imbues the whole film: whether Bill’s reverence for the land and his storytelling around the pelicans’ origins, or his and Tom’s insistence that not only must the growing birds return to the wild but that Michael must be the one to teach them how to fend for themselves. (I loved the scene where Tom and Bill sit on the beach watching Michael in a plastic snorkelling mask, trying to show the birds how to catch fish amid the shoreline waves.)
And while taking in wild baby animals as pets will nearly always involve some level of anthropomorphism – for Michael, the birds are playmates – the boy’s expectations of them are never twee.
That sense of magic, or a greater power, forces its way into the present day too. As the older Michael prepares for the meeting, a storm raging outside, a huge window suddenly shatters. It’s the resultant delay combined with a glimpse of a pelican outside in the rain that causes him to remember his past and reflect on how easily history can repeat itself.
The locations ( Coorong National Park in South Australia), the wildlife and Little’s endearing, chirpy charm make this a beautiful film. The 1950s scenes bear the muted colours of nostalgia and memories: the pale sand, the brown shack, the sage green of Mike’s little cardigan. There are occasional flashes of scarlet: a ball Mike and the birds play with on the beach, Fingerbone Bill’s shirt, a blanket, and sometimes blood.
The performances from Jamieson and Courtney add another layer of realism, their characters dealing with loss in their own ways rather than as stereotypes (though the hunters seem like shoehorned-in Saturday morning movie villains).
Courtney and Jamieson are both excellent: unshowy without being overly gruff, quietly charismatic while knowing when each should step back. Together they highlight the easy warmth hiding behind each man’s troubles, and at different times each recedes into the background while Michael and his three growing pelicans – Mr Proud, Mr Ponder, and his favourite, Mr Percival – take centre stage.
Finn Little is adorable and impressive as Storm Boy, a motherless boy whose plump cheeks and bottom lip quiver as he tries to hold in the tears, the extra freedoms afforded him by his time and his circumstances not enough to make up for his loneliness.
But the pelicans are just as much the stars – going from blind, pink-skinned babies via ungainly, endearing waddling to soaring flight, dive-bombing hunters and saving lives along the way.