Sort of a Kiwi version of PAPER MOON, this beautifully photographed film set in depression-era New Zealand is a story of improbable companionship. Robson (SMASH PALACE) is a 13-year-old living in a rural community on the picturesque South Island. Her mother is dead, and her unemployed father relocates to Wellington on the North Island, leaving Robson in...read more
Sort of a Kiwi version of PAPER MOON, this beautifully photographed film set in depression-era New Zealand is a story of improbable companionship. Robson (SMASH PALACE) is a 13-year-old living in a rural community on the picturesque South Island. Her mother is dead, and her unemployed
father relocates to Wellington on the North Island, leaving Robson in the care of an aunt who fails to understand the frustration and discomfort Robson experiences at school. When the situation becomes more than she can take, Robson runs away, bound for Christchurch where she hopes to hop a boat
to Wellington and her father. En route she encounters Phelps, an emotionally scarred WW I veteran and Robin Hood type who attempted to reclaim "the people's" furniture from a repossession agent. The agent, who was injured in that struggle, is in critical condition, and a nationwide manhunt is on
for Phelps. At first, he reluctantly allows Robson to tag along, then he realizes she will make a useful cover for his escape. As they travel through the beautiful country, pursued by one particularly zealous detective, their relationship deepens. One close call follows another. In a port city,
they are separated. A friend of Phelps' can get him on a ship to Australia if he will leave right away, but the fugitive is worried about Robson. In his frantic search for her, Phelps even visits a constabulary, where his impatient demands for assistance get him tossed--unidentified--into a
Salvation Army mission that is taking the jail's overflow. There he encounters Robson, and after making their escape, they are back on the road again. After a chance encounter with the woman Phelps loved before the war but who jilted him, and a trip to Robson's mother's grave, which the girl has
never seen, their luck runs out. Trying to flee, Phelps is shot and plummets from a high bridge to the river below, presumably dead. Robson falls, too, but she is fished out of the water by the police, who take her to Christchurch and put her on a ship to Wellington. As she boards, she hears an
explosion that she knows to be the diversion Phelps had planned to use to hop a ship to escape. She searches the vessel and finds him hiding. They say their heart-felt goodbyes and exchange their most treasured possessions, her harmonica and the St. Christopher medal his girl had given him before
the war. In Wellington, Robson is greeted by her father. At the fadeout, she stares back at the ship, knowing that it will take Phelps to safety in Sydney.
Although there are a number of improbable or at least fortuitous occurrences that conveniently advance the plot of STARLIGHT HOTEL (which takes its name from sleeping under the night sky), it remains an engaging story of an unlikely friendship. Hindin Miller's screenplay, adapted from his own
best-selling novel The Dream Monger, is flawed, but the likable central characters he has created are so compelling the audience wants to believe that their adventure could have happened exactly as it is portrayed. Director Pillsbury (THE SCARECROW) unfolds the tale at a surprisingly leisurely
pace, considering that this is, at least partly, a chase film. It develops in fits and starts; slow sections that concentrate on character development quickly give way to tense moments where capture seems inevitable. Certainly life on the run is not always literally that, and the film's structure
and pace give a very real feel to the cross-country journey. What really makes the film work are the performances by Robson and Phelps. Gruff but clear-eyed, Phelps lets us in on Patrick's fundamental decency right from the start. He is an angry young man, but he is righteously indignant. His
hostility toward those who piously sent him to war seems a little acute given that WW I ended 12 years previously, but his anger at those who have taken advantage of the depression hardship of others is more plausible and well conveyed. More important, his gradual warming to Robson is wholly
believable. Robson's performance is equally effective, capturing the independence and indomitable spirit that a girl willing to undertake such a trip would have to possess, while also preserving the innocence and naivete that keep her 13-year-old from being overly capable or self-assured. Had
their performances been weaker, the story might easily have been lost in the gorgeous photography of the magnificent New Zealand countryside. The film become a travelog, albeit a breathtakingly beautiful one. Mirage Films had initially planned to shoot most of STARLIGHT HOTEL near its North Island
base with a second-unit venturing south to provide the local color. However, even though they realized it would require considerable extra expense, Mirage decided the incredible natural beauty of the South Island would immeasurably enhance the film, and they shot the entire film there.
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