I remember looking forward to “Tracks,” a cross-Australia “walkabout” epic, when I saw the trailers back in 2013. But the ever-troubled Weinstein Co. never gave it much of a U.S. release.
But the story of Robyn Davidson’s cross-Outback trek, accompanied by Aussie camels she’d trained and her dog Diggity, lives on, making the rounds of free-TV streamers now, and a movie well worth your while.
Whatever echoes of “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Rabbit Proof Fence” and the less-known 1971 Aussie desert saga “Walkabout,” it’s a fine early showcase for both Mia Wasikowksa, who had already come into her own, and Adam Driver, who was a couple of years away from that when he gave this charmingly awkward performance.
We meet Robyn Davidson as a 20something, an aimless young woman who is moving on from her hippy friends and setting goals. She wants to cross 1700 miles of Australia, from Alice Springs to the sea, on foot. And the idea she pitches to assorted locals is that she’ll capture and tame some of the country’s non-native camels to use as pack animals for the journey.
She sounds determined but out of her depth, especially to assorted folks who work with camels at local tourist attractions. But she takes on indentured servant duties with one to learn all about camels, and secure a few for her later journey.
And when that “right bastard” cheats her, she finds another more inclined to keep his word.
That’s a running subtext of “Tracks,” the racist, brutish redneck nature of rural Australia in the ’70s. Robyn sees this everywhere she looks as she takes various short-term menial jobs that point her towards her goal.
It’s not totally nuts in her mind. Her father did similar treks in East Africa just before World War II. And Australians imported camels for the very purpose she plans to use for them for before abandoning them and watching the dromedaries thrive in a feral state in the country’s vast, dry open spaces.
It’s only when her friends track her down that the quest becomes feasible, and not because they have the money to finance her. They’ve befriended this chatterbox American photographer Rick who, prattling on to impress her, suggests she get a magazine to underwrite the expedition.
When she pitches “National Geographic” and they say yes, on the condition that she rendezvous with their photographer at several points along the way, she realizes her “do this on my own” project has been given a huge helping hand. Rick Smolan (Driver) will be that photographer, Range Rovering in to capture her and her motley crew on their months-long hike.
For someone whose desire is solitude, a personal test that allows her to eschew the human race, that promises to be a source of periodic irritation.
Director John Curran (“The Painted Veil,” “Stone”) gives us a healthy appreciation of the ordeal this was, and its many risks. As one sage Outbacker warns Robyn, “You don’t have to be unlucky to die out there.”
But screenwriter Marion Nelson is more interested in the interior journey, with flashbacks giving glimpses of a shattering childhood that Davidson stoically shook off, the origins of her intense connection to animals and her preference for her own company.
Wasikowksa lets on her degree of commitment to the part, and with a script that doesn’t have her talking to herself, does some of her finest acting in bringing this Australian icon to life. She lets us feel the determination, and the fear and resignation that sets in as the months pass. Voice-over narration taken from Davidson’s article for the Geographic and her later memoir adds poetry to the already poetic picture.
And Driver, in a quirky supporting role, is at his most impressive being just that — supportive, accepting her arms-length connection to him, admiring. It’s damned funny seeing him this gawky and out-of-his-league (and knowing it) in this intense young woman’s presence.
There’s plenty that’s perfectly conventional here, from the salt of the Earth white ranchers who take in “The Camel Lady” to the righteously-stereotyped Aboriginal people who sympathize with and teach her along the way.
But “Tracks,” available on assorted free streamers and elsewhere, still makes for a splendid adventure carried on the backs of a heroic young woman and one of the finest actresses of her generation who plays her.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some partial nudity, disturbing images and brief strong language
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver
Credits: Directed by John Curran, script by Marion Nelson, based on the memoir by Robyn Davidson. A Weinstein Co. release on Tubi, Roku, etc.
Running time: 1:52