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Dysfunctional goodfellas from Down Under

When you go to the movies more often than you grocery shop or wash your car, it's not difficult to remember exact moments that separate excellent films from the mainstream milieu.

That moment comes early in the blistering Australian crime-drama "Animal Kingdom."  A 17-year-old Melbourne boy shares a couch with his dying Mom as she succumbs to permanent sleep of a heroin overdose.

Josh, portrayed by newcomer James Frecheville, would pay more attention as his mother fades into oblivion if the game show blaring from the tele wasn't so fascinating.

"Animal Kingdom," a winner of the Grand Jury Prize World Cinema at this year's Sundance Film Festival in January, is a crime-drama for the non-squeamish who happen to appreciate outstanding use of the art form.

Josh, or "J" as he's called, will relocate to his grandmother's house.  Smurf (Jacki Weaver) dotes on her boys (J's uncles), insisting that adult druggie, armed robber and two-time underworld loser alike kiss her on the mouth.

Smurf welcomes J like Mama Dillinger might.  She cooks for them and maintains an upbeat, but guarded attitude.  Smurf also tends to her sons with guns when those nasty old Melbourne police injure or kill one of them.

And when even a family member threatens to harm one of her sons, that doting smile conceals thoughts of a cold-blooded solution.

Crikey, it's to protect her boys, don't you know.

"Animal Kingdom" is one of those near flawless movies crafted by a first-timer.   David Michôd, who co-wrote Nash Edgerton's short "Spider," writes and directs as if the audience is a fly on a wall as a volatile dysfunctional family dynamic sizzles like a dynamite fuse aflame in slow motion.

I don't want to give too much of this story away.  Just know that some excellent Australian actors, Guy Pearce ("The Road," "The Hurt Locker") as a police detective and others (Ben Mendelsohn, Luke Ford), disappear into their characters seamlessly.

Michôd, perhaps buoyed by the knowledge that all elements of "Animal Kingdom" are of solid footing, shows remarkable filmmaking savvy for a newcomer.

My only complaint is a nit-picky one.  The ending will require a little work and close scrutiny on the part of the audience members.  Perhaps it's left open to individual interpretation.

If that was the intention, I admire "Animal Kingdom" even more.


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