Samson and Delilah

Review by Jane Freebury

In the lead-up to its screening at Cannes, it might seem to sceptical punters that the critics are falling over themselves in praise of this first feature from Indigenous writer/director Warwick Thornton, who has already made his mark with a clutch of highly-regarded short films. Too much hype can work against a film. Will audiences take Samson & Delilah to their hearts too? I really hope so.

It is a special film. It calls itself a love story, though I wouldn’t say it was quite like that. There is certainly a tentative love and growing tenderness as two teenagers, Samson (Rowan McNamara) and Delilah (Marissa Gibson), leave their remote outback home behind and try to live on the urban fringe. It’s an odyssey that will speak to every single one of us.

Neither teenager lives with their parents. Samson is staying with his older brother, who seems to live off the reggae his ‘verandah band’ plays to distraction, as there’s not a skerrick of food in the fridge. Samson just hangs out, making the occasional nuisance of himself. Overcome by lassitude and hopelessness, and other issues we can only guess at, Samson needs to sniff petrol to get out of bed in the morning. We certainly cover some bleak territory but this is not an issue film. The story comes first.

Delilah with her Nana, an artist who supplies the gallery in nearby Alice Springs with her traditional paintings for a pittance compared with what they’re sold for. Delilah has a purposeful life providing care for her granny, who she takes in a battered wheelchair to the health service followed by a visit to the church, before they settle down to more painting together.

After a cuff over the ear from older brother for trying to join in the band with some noisy guitar, Connor picks up his bedroll and heads over to Delilah’s place. Mischievous grandma teases her about the attentions of this silent and persistent boy but Delilah’s not at all sure. And we’re not sure about her feelings either until she notices Samson dancing alone one night to the sound on his boombox, while she listens to Italian love songs in the dark – and their music mingles.

The look of the film is very seductive, with wonderful images from Thornton’s handheld camera, but I can appreciate that in other ways the film takes some risks with little dialogue and even less action. And yet the results resonate so powerfully. We have every indication of special talent at work here and this could just become a classic.

In a capsule: An immensely moving story, sensitively and skilfully told, about two teenagers in a remote Indigenous community who have stalled, unable to find their way. Every memorable frame announces this is the work of a major new talent in Australian film.

5 stars