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A classic childhood story has recently arrived in our household and it’s already joined the canon of books and films we read and watch again and again that include Where the Wild Things Are and Pooh stories and Goodnight Moon, as well as Fly Away Home, the great movie starring the teen-aged Anna Paquin as a bereaved girl who with the help of her inventor dad (Jeff Daniels) helps some geese fly south for the winter.

Opal Dream is a fine family film about the Williamsons, a family from the city of Melbourne who have relocated to the Australian outback town of Coober Pedy. The town is known as “the opal capital of the world,” and the dad, Rex Williamson (Vince Colosimo), has moved his family from the city to this dusty outback town to follow his dreams of “finding color.”

Sister Madly

Kellyanne, center, with her friends Pobby (left) and Dingan (right)
Kellyanne, center, with her friends Pobby (left) and Dingan (right)

The nine-year-old younger sister, Kellyanne (the ethereal, pale Sapphire Boyce, perfectly cast), is having trouble adjusting to their new life; while her brother Ashmol (Christian Byers) rides his bike around town and “noodles” for opal rocks at the mining sites, Kellyanne remains obsessed with her imaginary friends, “Pobby” and “Dingan.” (Pobby is the shy one with the wooden leg and a cape, as she describes him. And Dingan is twelve and beautiful and has “long hair in plaits” (braids) and “an opalized sea shell in her belly button.”)

The entire family seems stretched to the limits of their tolerance of Kellyanne’s invisible friends and her exclusive interactions with them. She can hardly speak without their “involvement” in every bit of her life.

Dad thinks he’s come up with a brilliant idea — taking the imaginary friends mining with Kellyanne’s brother, to give Annie and her daughter a Boxing Day barbie by the pool with real kids to make friends with. But the brilliant idea backfires, and Kellyanne’s preoccupation with her imaginary friends puts her family through some contortions that get the father thrown in jail and accused of a despicable crime that the townspeople decide he has committed.

Kellyanne, however, knows the truth. She seems to see it but can’t control her worry over her imaginary friends, which makes her responsible for the terrible difficulties her family faces in this drama.

Together Alone

When Kellyanne insists that her family go to the mine to search for her lost imaginary friends, one of the local miners suspects Rex Williamson is trying to steal from his claim because he hasn’t had any success on his own. This brings them to miner Sid’s patch of tunneled dirt (we already know Sid is hostile because earlier he found Ashmol sledding on the talus slopes and yelled at him). The children are terrified when Sid levels his shotgun at their father’s head, calling him a “ratter,” their slang for someone who thieves from another’s claim. Sid calls the police to come arrest the thief, and they defuse the situation but leave Rex accused of a serious crime and facing a judiciary hearing.

Soon after this, the family is surprised at home by a firebomb lobbed by Sid and his compatriots, who leave a hanging effigy bearing the placard “Ratter!” My six-year-old daughter loves this movie and finds this part shocking; we’ve been fairly protective of her exposure to TV and video so far, and this may be among the most violent scenes she’s ever seen.

The violence in Opal Dream is intense enough to make it unsuitable for younger children (under six or seven), but it has neither seemed to traumatize nor diminish our daughter’s love of “the Kellyanne movie,” as she dubbed it. She worried more about the little girl’s health, as she is shown vomiting later on her way to the hospital (until we explained that they were all acting).

The violence had added poignance for my daughter because the firebombing doesn’t hurt any people but does destroy Kellyanne’s airy, pleasant playhouse that had consisted of an old van carcass with curtains and pillows that were the home of her fancied friends.

With her playhouse destroyed and her friends lost, Kellyanne languishes. The doctor gives her every test in the book to no avail; the only false note I found in this story was that the girl wasn’t then evaluated psychologically, since her obsession was throwing the family dynamics out of whack. (Perhaps central Australians’ attitudes toward getting psychological help for thorny problems aren’t as accepting as mine.)

Kellyanne’s brother Ashmol, initially disgusted with his little sister’s constant playacting — and perhaps more than a little lonely on account of his sister’s preference to play with no one over playing with him — starts to work on his sister’s behalf when he sees how much her lost imaginary friends mean to her. It is young Ashmol who digs up the solution that brings the whole town around, after a bit of courtroom drama and yet another ill-conceived midnight journey to the mine. By the end of the film, however, thanks to his actions, Kellyanne and the family appear to be well on their way to healing, with the newfound support of the townspeople and one another.

How Can I Resist Her

The actors in this film, while not well known, are all excellent and very well cast; all of the casting is excellent but the family particularly shine in really looking like a family. I also think fondly of the rare and winning smile of Kellyanne’s older brother Ashmol, and even the unflagging cheerful optimism of the prospecting dad, Rex, however obliviously optimistic he may be. There’s something that feels authentically Australian in the relaxed way that people get along well and enjoy each other. I’d like to see an entire film starring Anna Linarello, who plays a minor character (Betsy) but has a voice I want to listen to much longer than she is featured here.

Robert Humphreys’ cinematography deploys a bleached palette of sand and pale green to add to the hot, oppressive feeling of a dusty town in the desert in the brutal heat of summer. Yet relief is always around the corner in the form of the score, with original music by Christian Henson and Dario Marianelli. It’s the perfect family movie score, with playful riffs that build anticipation and set a light, adventurous tone for what turns out to be a rather serious story.

Nobody Takes Me Seriously

I found the notion that Kellyanne had a more serious problem that wasn’t getting proper attention far more controversial than the violence or the ending, however. My mother railed that she would have put a stop to that behavior long ago; I said I would have taken the girl to a psychologist when the first battery of tests came up with no clear diagnosis any better than her brother’s description of her as “sick-with-worry sick.”

This is the kind of controversy that makes for good dinner-table discussion. We’ve had lively debates about various plot points and whether it was appropriate to let Kellyanne be so exclusively focused on people who weren’t really there. It is debatable whether she simply needed someone to help her with a difficult adjustment. To find the qualities she needed to survive in her situation, we’ve guessed, Kellyanne invented friends with those qualities: hence she could draw from Pobby’s courage in dealing with his wooden leg and limp, and Dingan’s beauty and poise.

The World Where You Live

But this is the only dramatic reversal we get; the others are subtler and slower to come. The first time we watched Opal Dream, we had to stop watching half an hour before the film was over and I made a guess that a very different ending would close the tale. But I had provided a very Hollywood ending, I realized, after I had seen the actual ending. Director Peter Cattaneo (who directed The Full Monty and helped author Ben Rice adapt the screenplay from Rice’s book Pobby and Dingan) has a light touch here; the graces conferred by the ending are few and the rewards simple.

When you see a film with a child, you want to learn a little about not only the people in the story but about the world you both occupy. Stories like Opal Dream become classics because they have something new for you, something to teach but not preach, whether you’re old or young.

I liked seeing the opal-mining world in the Australian outback close-up. And I liked seeing the way kids can come up with extreme solutions to extreme stresses. For my daughter it is understanding the charm of imaginary friends (we’ve heard an awful lot about our daughter’s new friend, “SueElla” lately), and a budding understanding of acting.

And the film has plenty to say about how people cope with adversity: when this family bears the indignities they suffer with grace, we see how we too might find the resources to be equally creative in a difficult situation.