Well, a cavalry of film critics came charging. Scott Foundas found out about a screening at an obscure festival, raced over, and published a rave in Variety that started the pressure on the studio. Everyone's favorite film-critic couple Charles Taylor in the Newark Star-Ledger and Stephanie Zacharek in Salon piled on. Roger Ebert's big thumb helped to get Duma a limited run in Chicago.
Now, the movie has a tryout in two New York theaters. At the preview I attended, the audience got a note from the director saying: If you like this film, please, please tell people.
So, I'm telling you. I like it. Maybe not as much as those other pictures, but enough to bemoan a system in which family films have been so geared to kids (and their parents) weaned on video games that it's inhospitable to more measured kinds of storytelling.
Duma is the story of a boy and a cheetah—but don't click off! There are nature films and there are Ballard nature films. Think of the title creature in The Black Stallion, charging along the beach with its flanks rippling: more than a horse—the Platonic ideal of a horse, like something Michelangelo would sculpt. In Fly Away Home, Anna Paquin leads a flock of orphaned geese south for the winter in an ultralight plane. It sounds absurd—but you're up there with these birds, and the beat of their wings plugs right into your heartbeat.
In Duma, a baby cheetah's mother is slain by a lion in a South African preserve, and the mewling little animal stumbles through a fence and onto a road, where he's rescued by a family and taken to their farm. Duma—as he's now called—gets on famously with every creature, including the sorts of farm animals a cheetah might ordinarily eat, and especially with the boy, Xan (Alexander Michelatos). But Xan's father (Campbell Scott) is aware that this is a wild animal; he tells Xan that wildness is in Duma's blood, and that before the cheetah gets thoroughly domesticated, he must be returned to the preserve.
So far, so Born Free, except for the characteristic intimacy that Ballard has with animals, and the way he photographs Duma running alongside the father's motorcycle as he measures the growing cheetah's velocity—running so that you can appreciate the marvel of that musculature.
Duma changes gears when the father dies of cancer, and when Xan and his mother (Hope Davis), are forced to sell the farm move to the city. It's quickly apparent that Duma, like those geese in Fly Away Home, needs an escort back to nature. The runaway Xan's journey, first in a motorcycle (with Duma in a sidecar), then on foot through a desert, is the stuff of great coming-of-age sagas. Before it ends, he'll turn the motorcycle into a sailboat, dig out a man buried alive, and—here's a change of pace for a family picture!—push a reluctant predator into its first kill, a nice little antelope. For all its reverence for animals, the movie is infused with the idea of a harsh, even cruel nature—a nature that brings you even closer to mortality and loss.
It's obvious why the studio has no faith in Duma. It has a long, meditative middle section in the desert after Xan runs out of gas and joins up with an untrustworthy fortune-hunter, edgily played by Eamonn Walker. The character suggests another aspect of nature at work: the way that an unfair economic system can bring out one's rather unsavory survival instincts. It's a rich, but slow stretch, and children younger than 8 (like mine) might get restless.
But this big kid was lost in admiration. Ballard loves to shoot at the time photographers call the "magic hour"—the end of the day when the shadows are slanted and the light is reddish gold. I think of all of Duma as the magic hour.
Tacky Ad Quote of the Month: "Audiences, too, will be asking for more." —Paul Fischer, Dark Horizons, on Oliver Twist. From hunger ... 9:18 a.m. PT