In the desolate, dust-choked Australian outback, two indigenous teens make tentative, grudging stabs at first love.
But don’t mistake “Samson and Delilah” for some sunny, down-under teen romance. In this stark, subtle and surprisingly touching feature debut from writer-director-cinematographer Warwick Thornton teenage love is simply a desperate bonding together against the harshest realities of an inescapably bleak life.
The story begins with a nearly wordless picture of daily drudgery. Curly-haired Samson (Rowan MacNamara) lives in a dilapidated shack in a remote Aboriginal burg and begins each day huffing gasoline from a rusty coffee can. Riding a dull high, he staggers out to the porch where his brother’s ragtag reggae band begins its repetitious serenading of the vast nothingness.
In a hovel down the dirt road lives Delilah (Marissa Gibson), a pretty, hopeful, hard-working young girl who cares diligently for her frail grandmother and helps the old woman fashion primitive, colorful Aboriginal paintings to be sold to tourists in the faraway cities.
Samson casts longing eyes on Delilah, but she studiously ignores him (even when he tosses rocks at her to get her attention).
When it seems life in this harsh, unforgiving place can’t get worse, things get worse for Samson and Delilah. He impetuously starts a fight with a man who won’t let him play his guitar and is duly pummeled. When Delilah’s grandmother dies, villagers lay quick, unjust blame on her for neglect and beat her with sticks.
Samson rescues Delilah, and they flee in a stolen pickup truck to the big city of Alice Springs. There, they are woefully unprepared for the harsh rigors of urban life and are cruelly shunned, save for the kindness of Gonzo, a loquacious bum (Scott Thornton, the filmmaker’s brother). He lets the runaway teens share his shelter under a bridge as they huff gasoline and try to scratch out a meager existence – until a truly brutal tragedy befalls them.
Thornton, a gifted cinematographer, tells much of his story in sharp, simple images, and it’s not until halfway through that we hear enough dialogue to learn that Samson suffers from a speech impediment. Bravely, the filmmaker has cast his story with novice actors who lend an earnest, awkward, primal authenticity to their halting characters and make their heartbreaking plight feel doubly real. Both McNamara and Gibson turn in nuanced and painstakingly honest performances.
American audiences might have to make a daunting cultural leap to understand all the specific reference points that the story rests upon (gasoline huffing, for instance, is a widespread scourge among disaffected Aboriginal youth). But it’s worth the hard work to make the connections.
In the end, there are plenty of commonplace touch points and familiar emotional undercurrents to make this sad but oddly sweet love story feel both poetical and torturous. “Samson and Delilah” offers a brutal vision of a very specific world, but one that’s ultimately informed by great heart, hope and gritty sympathy.
- Dennis King
“Samson and Delilah”
Starring: Rowan McNamara, Marissa Gibson, Scott Thornton
(Ratings criteria: sensuality and violence, etc)