Every major Austrailian feature has to have either Nicole Kidman, Geoffrey Rush or Hugo Weaving, STRANGERLAND has two of them, so I figured I was in for a treat. Everyone knows if you try to run from your problems they always catch up. This dictum is well illustrated in another Sundance film IT FOLLOWS (I interviewed writer/director David Robert Mitchell during Fantastic Fest). Sundance world cinema selection premiere Strangerland tells a similar story, but one where the danger is far more grounded in this world.

Joseph Fiennes plays Matthew Parker, a pharmacist who has moved his family to a run down town in the Australian Outback to escape the past. No one particularly likes it there, especially Tommy, his son who has taken to walking at night when he can’t sleep. Daughter Lily seems to be the primary reason for the move as she had an affair with her teacher. When the two children wander off into the night, Parker is not too keen to make the town aware of their troubles.

As the Lily promiscuity becomes more apparent, fingers start to point: Catherine Parker (Fienne’s wife played by Nicole Kidman) points to the simple Bertie who painted their house and was the subject of Lili’s secret love collages, Matthew Parker points to his wife (he actually tells her “well, she didn’t get it from me”), and Detective Davis Rae (Hugo Weaving) points to Matthew Parker, especially when it comes out that he beat Lili’s teacher nearly to death. As the search continues, the Parker marriage crumbles and they take the town with it.

STRANGERLAND works because all the parts seem selected to have the greatest impact. The depth of the relationship between Fiennes and Kidman gives then plenty of great moments, and when Weaving makes it a triangle, the film soars. It is a true honor to watch such phenomenal actors work their craft and the film is filled with more buried drama than a Sam Shepard play.

If that wasn’t enough, the setting provides a landscape of despair to torture the characters. As the town scours the desolate countryside for signs of the children, the barren cliff walls and dry dust mock their quest. I’ve often remarked that so many post-apocalyptic films utilize the outback as their location because it has that naturally beautiful yet completely inhospitable look. It is so effective then to see it in a contemporary piece, where it can represent the apocalypse of all hope.The town plays as a border town, one last stop before entering the unknown, as the children disappear into the empty beyond.

The most frightening moment of the film, and one that stands out as the most original, is the onset of the dust storm, a virtual wall of sand that rolls over the town. The Parkers are driving through the town looking for their children when a tidal wave of dust engulfs the car. Their search continues in the unbreathable air, and they can barely open their eyes.

Director Kim Farrant fills her first feature with spectacular tension and gripping drama and really commands the screen with a perfectly crafted film. The cinematography is great, but always in service of telling the story, even when the vistas get overwhelming.

Each performance shines, and it especially nice to see a film that could have just been a simple end of a marriage kitchen sink drama layered with a mystery and some great action moments. In fact, it is the most complete film I’ve seen at Sundance so far. If I have to be critical, I would say the ending, which is a bit of a non-ending, is somewhat disappointing. Not that it is unexpected, and in a story like this, the open-ended feeling adds to the unknown quality of life, the theme of rescuing your family from the brink of desolation. I just wished they had tied up one story line, at least in terms of how the family will proceed. I won’t say more than that, because I don’t want to ruin how the film plays out, so you know I think its good.

It sounds like STRANGERLAND is about to be picked up by Alchemy for 1.5 million and a muti-city theatrical US release, so that’s good news, you should be able to see this film sooner rather than later. Be sure to follow me on twitter @bearsfonte for my film by film reaction of this year’s festival.

Bears Fonté is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin, a new festival in Texas’ capital focused on SciFi.  Prior to that, Bears served as Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival from 2012-14, overseeing some 200 films selected to screen at eight venues over eight days.  The 2013 Festival saw 28 world premiere features and 7 films picked up at the festival or the week after.  His most recent short film, THE SECRET KEEPER, has been selected by over 35 US Film Festivals since September of 2012.  His feature thriller iCRIME, which he wrote and directed, was released on DVD, VOD and streaming by Vicious Circle Films in 2011.  Bears also self-produced two web-series which have been seen by a combined ten million viewers.

Prior to arriving in Austin, Bears wrote coverage for independent producers and coverage services in LA and placed in nearly every single screenwriting contest out there including Screenwriter’s Expo, Final Draft Big Break, Page International, Story Pros and Austin Film Festival.

Bears received his BA from Carleton College in British Studies and Theatre Studies and a MFA in Directing from Indiana University and has directed over forty plays, including the Austin Critics Table nominee Corpus Christi, and the Austin Shakespeare Festival’s Complete Works of Shakspeare Abridged. He studied writing with noted playwrights Jeff Hatcher and Denis Reardon, and directed the first-ever professional productions by Princess Grace Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Don Zolidis and up-and-coming playwright Itamar Moses. He is currently working on a new five minute short to submit to festivals in 2015.

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