In a dusty Aussie backwater—one, in fact, that used to be an ocean—men with rocks in their heads dig for opal deposits, for "color," for dreams. Peter Cattaneo's family film Opal Dream, based on Ben Rice's novel Pobby and Dingan, takes a child's-eye view of faith and compassion as they test a father and son. Okay, it's not quite as tough-minded as its neighbor attraction Blood Diamond—also about gathering gems; rather, Opal Dream advances the hard-won but happy notion that burying childish things needn't spell an end to dreaming.
In the mining town of Coober Pedy, relations tend to be strained. Given the often unfulfilled promise of opal digs, families face a hard-scrabble existence, and miners have a no-tolerance policy for "ratting," or invading someone else's claim. The Williamson family has an added strain: nine-year-old Kellyanne (Sapphire Boyce) refuses to part ways with her imaginary friends Pobby and Dingan. Her mother Annie (Jacqueline McKenzie of The 4400) preaches patience, but her husband Rex (Vince Colosimo) and son Ashmol (Christian Byers) bristle at the annoyance and inconvenience of two invisible family members.
One day, Rex "takes" Pobby and Dingan to work and—as far as Kellyanne is concerned—returns home without them. The ensuing drama finds Dad returning by night to his opal claim and innocently straying onto that of his neighbor. Nailed for ratting, Rex finds himself with a livelihood-threatening criminal charge to defend, as well as a literally life-threatening problem: a despondent Kellyanne spirals into psychosomatic illness in the absence of her little friends. Ashmol's boyish petulance for his sister's behavior rehabilitates into a manly desire to set things right by supporting his father's legal effort and conducting a townwide search for Pobby and Dingan.
Opal Dream may not entirely stand up to scrutiny, but it is a rather sweet tale about each family member struggling to accept the others on their own terms. One gently heart-rending scene finds a depressed and wistful Annie discussing with Ash the path not taken with an old boyfriend: Ash's comforting existence and unconditional love for his father prove just the reminders she needs to conclude that her husband deserves a chance to set things right.
Meanwhile, Ash decides that nothing is more important than his family's well-being, even if he must swallow his pride and face ridicule while defending their honor; the processes of healing Kellyanne's psyche and righting the injustice against his father requires him to empathize fully with them, and evermore unconditionally love them. Perhaps the film's faith-in-humanity conclusion is too optimistic, but it provides the sort of heartening, Capraesque movie moment of which we'd all like to believe our lives are capable.