Starring a cast of mostly amateur actors, Imogen Thomas’s debut film Emu Runner offers a delicate rendering of a young girl’s grief. In the rural NSW town of Brewarrina, the sudden death of a young mother leaves a family reeling.
Gemma (Rhae-Kye Waites) struggles to cope with the loss. As her siblings, father and extended family swirl around her in a vortex of support, Gemma isolates herself by seeking out the company of a lone female emu.
As Gemma believes her mother could speak to birds, this friendship is more than just a bond between girl and bird – it’s a living link between mother and daughter. Gemma’s obsession with the emu stirs up trouble in the small town as she skips school and steals food from neighbours to feed her wild friend. The family comes under scrutiny from social services and the local police when Gemma is caught stealing from the school teacher’s garden.
Emu Runner is set to a stunning score of Australian birdsong. This approach to sound – relying mainly on diegetic noises and country music warbling from battered CD players elevates the sense of place the story is so deeply rooted in. There is no mistaking the harsh isolation of the Australian bush, and it is the way Gemma interacts with the landscape which evokes a sense of home and connection.
Rhae-Kye Waites is captivating as our young protagonist. Her grounded performance showcases the resilience of youth when faced with trauma. Her older siblings Ecka (Rodney McGughes) and Val (Letisha Boneh) exhibit their grief in different, more teenage ways, and with patriarch Jay Jay (Wayne Blair) insisting that the best thing for the family is to collectively move on, we are privy to a glimpse of a family in various stages and iterations of grief.
Every shot in Emu Runner is exquisitely framed, showcasing the sparse landscape under the varying Australian sun. It is a feast for the eyes. Native animals and birds feature heavily throughout establishing shots in the film, but there is no sense of exhibitionism in this film – the animals are acknowledged as significant characters in their own right and are afforded the utmost respect by the filmmakers.
With its moving storyline, fresh faces and powerful imagery, Emu Runner is a strong addition to the Australian film canon.
The film had been in development for more than ten years prior to the start of principal photography.