It could have been little more than an Australian "Not Without My Daughter" in reverse, but instead, "Rabbit-Proof Fence" is the finest fractured-family tale in a season that's been full of them.
In 1931, two half-caste Aboriginal sisters and their cousin are taken from their mothers and spirited off to a native settlement 1,200 miles away. The officially sanctioned kidnapping is part of white Australia's ongoing campaign of cultural genocide, a "socialization" crusade that forces children to jettison their native traits and attempts to breed out blackness via generations of intermarriage. A lethal attitude of patronization drives Mr. A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), the white "chief protector" of the Aborigines, who decrees the abductions: "In spite of himself, the native must be helped," he sniffs.
But the eldest of the three children, Molly Craig (Everlyn Sampi), will have none of it. Taking her sister and her cousin under her wing, she mounts an escape from the settlement, determined to travel the long distance back to her waiting mother -- on foot. A 1,500-mile fence that bisects the continent becomes the children's guide, while their white enemies deploy a black tracker (David Gulpilil) with almost supernatural hunting abilities to chase them down.
Working from a 1996 book by Molly's daughter, Doris Pilkington Garimara, screenwriter Christine Olsen constructs a basic, two-note yarn: The film flips back and forth between the girls' journey and scenes of Neville poring over maps to plot their capture. The structure is simple, but in its own way, "Rabbit-Proof Fence" is a quest story as grand as "The Lord of the Rings." The down-under landscapes are stunning, and director Phillip Noyce (currently shaking off his action-hack image with pictures like this one and "The Quiet American") maintains a tone of quiet outrage. Selling the package is a Peter Gabriel world-music score you won't have to be an espresso-quaffing NPR liberal to love.
The movie soars, though, because it has the courage to make the girls the stars of their own story, and not fob off the dramatic glory to adult actors. That commitment pays off in a spunky performance by Sampi, who has her defining moment shortly before Molly flees the settlement. Lying awake and staring at the ceiling, she whispers a curse against her new so-called guardians: "These people make me sick." Turning that revulsion into indignation and finally spiritual transcendence is the magic this Rabbit has waiting under its hat.