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MOVIE REVIEW

'Opal' can't get beyond feel-good messages

The Australian family drama "Opal Dream" is an awfully leaky boat to have made it all the way to U S theaters. Small in scale, it works hard to break your heart and then reheat the pieces, and parents with older kids who want to sample something beyond the latest Hollywood sensory assault will welcome it. It's a sticky experience nevertheless.

The setting is the film's most intriguing feature: Coober Pedy , the real South Australia desert town from which 80 percent of the world's opals are mined and where a good chunk of the population lives underground. The Williamsons, however, live up top in borderline poverty: Father Rex (Vince Colosimo) is a city boy whose dreams of striking the mother lode haven't panned out , and his wife , Annie (Jacqueline McKenzie) , is starting to fret.

"Opal Dream" is mostly about their kids -- 11-year-old Ashmol (Christian Byers ) and his younger sister Kellyanne (Sapphire Boyce ) -- and about Kellyanne's two imaginary friends. They're named Pobby and Dingan , and the girl insists on their existence with a fervor that's more disturbing than the movie's willing to admit. This is the kind of story where a child's fantasy is celebrated well past the point of psychiatric intervention.

Rex loses Pobby and Dingan -- don't ask -- and Kellyanne pitches such a fit that he ventures out to the mining grounds to "find" them. It's a remarkably surreal landscape of holes in the ground and pyramids of dirt stretching to the horizon, but "Opal Dream" isn't all that interested. Rex is accused of "ratting" another miner's claim, and the family is exiled from the community while a legal hearing looms and the little girl wastes away mysteriously .

Her brother eventually rides to the rescue in ways I won't spoil, and the courtroom climax is the film's strongest, most enjoyable section, with enough "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town"-style comeuppance to put the fairy tale over. Neither performances nor filmmaking have the flair to make "Opal Dream" more than an after-school curio, though.

Byers is fine as the son but the parents have little depth beyond their anxieties. Boyce is a pill, and a whiner to boot. More movies should feature kids who aren't cutesy-poo mini-adults, but Kellyanne's delusions are so complete, and so damaging to her parents, that their indulgence starts smelling like enablement.

There's an interesting movie there -- a family in thrall to its craziest member -- but "Opal Dream" isn't it. Directed by Peter Cattaneo ("The Full Monty") and based on a rather tougher novella by Ben Rice (first published in Granta), the film squeezes out its feel-good messages like toothpaste from a tube.

"We're all dreaming together," says Ashmol toward the end, "and that's what's real forever." It would be nice to think so -- actually, it would be nice to know what that even means -- but "Opal Dream" makes it awfully hard.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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