Directed by: Riri Riza || Produced by: Mira Lesmana
Screenplay by: Salman Aristo || Starring: Cut Mini, Ikranagara, Tora Sudiro, Slamet Rahardjo
Music by: Sri Aksan Sjuman, Riti Handayani Sjuman || Cinematography: Yadi Sugandi || Country: Indonesia || Language: Indonesian
Running Time: 124 minutes
Every now and then, you come across a narrative that connects with you through a shared sense of nostalgia for childhood moments that made you into who you are today. It connects with you through the always powerful “human element.” Laskar Pelangi is one of those narratives. Despite its weaknesses, Laskar Pelangi (LP) preaches an honorable message without becoming, well, preachy. Far too often, filmmakers do not understand how to communicate messages or themes, however noble. They either present one ineffectively (in either a preachy or lazy way), or they forgo presenting one altogether — a film with no point to it whatsoever besides mindless entertainment and box office profits. Neither situation is the case here. LP has its heart in the right place and delivers its message in just the right way.
As the film’s focus is on education and the importance of childhood development on adulthood, (its story follows a group of underprivileged schoolchildren struggling to keep their school open) LP features an ensemble child-actor cast along with strong supporting performances from professional adult actors. Most of the child actors were non-professional amateurs recruited from the island of Belitung (where the film is set), and they did a phenomenal job with the material. As a matter of fact, I found myself recalling various scenarios from my childhood that mirrored situations in the film. This degree of association (is “relatability” even a word?) goes a long way toward showcasing the script’s quality and strength of characterizations. You can see yourself and your smartass, goofball friends in many of the cast-members — their quirks, mannerisms, awkward senses of humor, and pastimes all echo memories of your gang from years past. This human element is LP’s biggest strength by far.
The soundtrack deserves a shout-out as well, combining both Eastern and Western styles to create a dynamic score for the film. The music is one of the film’s most distinct and memorable qualities, and that’s saying something considering how well written the story and characters are.
Surprisingly, much of what detracts from the film is its direction and cinematography. Most scenes are shot in a methodical, plain fashion, and there’s not much in the way of eye candy or memorable camerawork. The few scenes that do try to work in some metaphorical symbolism are poorly done. A weird dream sequence midway through the film reaches for visual allegory, but comes across as confusing and awkward. A few other digital FX are used in brief sequences elsewhere in the film, further attempting to visualize character emotions and states of mind, but they’re either too brief or too on-the-nose to be effective.
As a whole though, LP is a much stronger film than many movies with similar tones or subject matter, because the writing and acting in LP are leagues better than most others. It’s amazing how much more memorable a film can be when the cheapest element of its production, the screenplay, is sound. Laskar Pelangi’s cinematography is nothing to shout about, but in its defense, it’s not distracting or bad, and thus manages to support a far better script. Laskar Pelangi succeeds because its characters feel real and its story is believable. It doesn’t take any suspension of disbelief to follow or enjoy, and quite frankly, I find that extremely refreshing.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: With minimalist cinematography and likable, heartwarming characters, Laskar Pelangi is a feelgood underdog-story that works. Its got great (non-professional!) kid actors as well as capable adults, and tops off its lovable tale with a melodic soundtrack.
— However… Pelangi tries to do too much with lackluster dream sequences and corny digital FX. I’m not a fan of handheld camerawork outside of action-scenes, but here in this low-budget, rural environment, some dynamic camera-movements would have been justified. The story’s chump-budget, scrappy appeal and working-class aesthetic needed a grungier overall approach to the film’s cinematography.
? Can you imagine the look on somebody’s face in most countries if they ran into a crocodile on their way to school?