The fablelike Rocket an unforgettable firework

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Starring Sitthiphon Disamoe. In Lao, with English subtitles. Unrated.

The seldom-depicted country of Laos gets affectionate treatment in this Australian-Thai–financed movie about a boy who faces adversity with resourceful determination. The fablelike tale begins with the gruelling home birth of twins—a taboo among northern hill people, as we learn from the sharp-tongued mother-in-law (Bunsri Yindi) of beautiful Mali (Alice Keohavong). One twin brings bad fortune, the other prosperity; with the second born dead, the family can never know which was which, so the women don’t even tell dad (Bruce Lee look-alike Sumrit Warin). Ten years later, the surviving Ahlo (played by arresting newcomer Sitthiphon Disamoe) turns out to be a handful in every way.

As happens everywhere, bad “luck” follows indigenous people with little access to lawyers, media, and standing armies. In this case, an abruptly announced dam project forces Ahlo’s family to abandon its simple village life for an uncertain future. There are tragic turns during the harrowing relocation, suggesting that the boy might be fulfilling his ill-assigned destiny. But he also makes new friends in the form of spunky, same-aged Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her unusual guardian, an ex-soldier (Thailand’s Thep Phongam) who has refashioned himself in the image of midperiod James Brown, complete with purple suit.

The Rocket’s unusual combination of gritty realism, beautifully shot ethnographic details, childlike fantasy, and pure storytelling verve (with wide-screen images aided by an unusually unobtrusive musical score) is mostly down to writer-director Kim Mordaunt, an Australian with many documentaries under his belt. He’s best known for 2007’s Bomb Harvest, about the curse of unexploded ordinance left over from U.S. incursions during the Vietnam War.

Mordaunt’s research and obvious rapport with the mostly amateur actors pay unforgettable dividends here, especially when Ahlo’s blended family reaches a busy way station where the locals hold an annual rocket festival, turning leftover gunpowder, bat guano, and other ingredients into a noisy, if futile, form of self-assertion. If life hands you land mines, sometimes you have to make fireworks.

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