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7 Films to Watch This Week: Rocket to Redemption

A colorful crew of displaced Laotians take a ride on the mountain-side version of public transport in Kim Mordaunt's The Rocket. Image courtesy of Kino Lorber. 

Australia's entry to the best foreign film category at the Academy Awards, The Rocketdidn't win the category. The Laos-set film, which captured accolades all over its home country and nearly swept Tribeca, wasn't even nominated, passed over for six selections all notable for their decidedly "adult" subject material, which is too bad, because it's a damn good film.

After surviving his stillborn brother, Ahlo (plucky, pitch-perfect Sitthiphon Disamoe) is a kid born under a curse that seems to have come home to roost. When his small family is displaced from their village by the construction of a second hydroelectric dam and his mother and biggest supporter is ripped away from him in a clever but nasty Fitzcarraldian nod, his fate as an outcast is cemented. Arriving at their new digs, he immediately makes allies with fellow outliers, the equally adorable Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her uncle Purple (Thep Phongam), so named for the vibrant suit he wears in tribute to his hero, James Brown.

Stealing food and money from ritual sites while spending his days with these two outcasts, Ahlo slowly finds the whole community against him, not least his grandmother Taikok, a detestable old crow who holds the young boy responsible for the family's bad luck. The region's socio-economic troubles are an ever-present backdrop – never more than in a surreal moment in which the family seeks to settle at an abandoned village built on spent missile shells – but, Mordaunt knows his intended audience, and mostly keeps things light aside from a few brutal, realistic shocks. As a director, Mordaunt certainly knows his way around the "Spielberg face" and never fails to deploy it to effect in some of these moments and gorgeous vistas alike.

The rocket of the title is Ahlo's chance at redemption: a competition to build a rocket to "tickle the sky" and bring rain which also carries a large cash prize –just like the dreadfully dangerous real-life competitions on which the story is based. Though the resolution might seem just a little too neat, the film's overall intelligence and a genuine undercurrent of human tragedy keep the narrative and viewers on their toes.

Family films are always a tightrope act – geared to give audiences enough meat to chew on but not so much that they choke. It's a difficult balance, which is why most contemporary entries split into two categories: strictly for the young (Frozen) and for the underdeveloped of all ages (Twilight). Mourdant's intelligent offering handily walks that tightrope, and throws in some social commentary to boot, falling in with an older generation of kids' movies like Jean-Jacques Annaud's wonderful 1988 animal yarn The Bear. Opera Plaza. Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

ALSO PLAYING:

Wes Anderson in 35mm - Just in time for the release of his new film The Grand Budapest Hotel, Roxie screens a 35mm (that's real film, folks) retrospective of his work, curiously including nearly everything except the classic Rushmore. Bring your red beanie. Starts Saturday, Roxie.

American Hustle - Nominated for 10 Academy Awards ... and it won none of them! Some say David O'Russell out-Scorsese'd Scorsese in this gangster drama, and like Martin's buddy Leo he had serious cause to shed tears on Sunday. Thursday and Friday, Castro. Rotten Tomatoes: 93%.

Design and Architecture Films Showcase - YBCA's design series (featured here last week) continues with 16 Acres, a film about the fate of the WTC site, and splashy underground exploration doc Lost Rivers. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, YBCA Screening Room.

Masculine FemininePierrot Le Fou - BAM continues its Jean-Luc Goddard retro with two of the New Wave leading light's stone classics. Sanjit Ray's first color film, Kanchenjungha also plays this weekend. Saturday and Sunday, PFA Berkeley.

Peaches Christ' Clueless - The 8pm screening of this 90s classic of conspicuous consumption is already sold out? As if! Another added showing is now on sale, featuring the same star-studded drag pre-show and minis for days. Saturday only, Castro.

VisitorsKoyaanisqatsi director Godfrey Reggio teams up with Philip Glass one more time for this film that has some critics rapt and others rolling their eyes. Whatever your verdict, its striking visuals will fare best on the big screen. Embarcadero. Rotten Tomatoes: 66%.