A pretty, somewhat sleepy and strange once-upon-a-time tale, “The Rocket” is the story of a Laotian boy who transcends adversity, partly because, if we’re being honest, few moviegoers would probably want to watch a film about a boy who doesn’t (unless it is a documentary).
It opens with a villager, Mali (Alice Keohavong), giving birth to twins, one dead. An older relative, Taitok (Bunsri Yindi), wants to kill the surviving child because, she insists, twins are bad luck. Mali successfully begs for the boy’s life, and, after the dead newborn is clandestinely buried, the surviving child grows up to become the movie’s plucky 10-year-old hero, Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe).
The story is simple, blunt and vague. One day, a man in a military uniform passes out leaflets to residents, who are summoned to a presentation at which it’s announced that they will be relocated to make way for a dam.
Suddenly, everyone is on the move, Ahlo’s family included, hauling their meager worldly goods across the lush countryside, vividly shot by Andrew Commis. A terrible accident thins the family’s numbers, a calamity that the insufferable, wretched Taitok pins on Ahlo.
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Even Ahlo’s father, Toma (Sumrit Warin), who clenches his fists at the boy, seems to fault him. Soon, though, there are other problems to contend with, including the pitiful makeshift camp to which the family is relocated with scores of other bewildered villagers.
The prevalence of unexploded bombs is a running motif in “The Rocket” and, in one of the sharpest, most effective scenes, a surreal interlude in an abandoned mountainside village, large missiles can be seen propping up homes.
What gives this movie its sting is that, despite Mordaunt’s insistent attempts at uplift, death hovers over this story at every single moment, from the truck filled with bombs on which the family hitches a ride to the eye-poppingly dangerous rocket contest that gives the movie its title. Here, every smile feels etched in sorrow.