Dylan Webber (Ed Oxenbould), a twelve-year-old boy in a small town in rural Western Australia, lost his mum in a car accident. His dad Jack (Sam Worthington) is a broken man. He spends his days on the coach, unwilling to do much of anything. One day a visitor arrives at school to teach the kids how to make the perfect paper airplane. Dylan takes to it like a natural. His paper-plane soars so far and high that his math teacher Mr. Hickenlooper (Peter Rowsthorn) encourages him to compete in try-outs for the Australian Paper Plane Championship in Sydney. Sure enough Dylan's dynamic new design ensures his paper-plane soars more than twenty-five metres, thus landing him place in the national final. In Sydney Dylan develops a crush on last year's international champion, pretty and wise Japanese competitor Kimi (Ena Emai), but his success also earns him the enmity of Jason (Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke), a bratty kid determined to win at all costs. Yet Dylan's real struggle lies with his father who seems far too dejected to help him overcome the many obstacles in his way.
In a genre too often crowded with lowest common denominator junk a film as smart, sensitive and plain well made as Paper Planes is enough to redeem one's faith in family films. It marks the first venture into family fare for Robert Connolly, one of Australia's most acclaimed auteurs. Better known for gritty dramas with a strong political agenda, such as his harrowing crime thriller The Boys (1998) and period immigration saga Romulus, My Father (2007), Connolly's exuberant direction makes Paper Planes really soar. His creative camera-work with D.P. Tristan Milani embraces the scenic vistas and wide open spaces of Western Australia, underlining the beauty in the world grownups often take for granted.
In its devotion to the idea that outdoor activity is healthy for the mind, body and spirit the film is deeply Australian. Yet more subtle and impressive are the means by which the script, co-written by Connolly and Steve Worland, attempts to apply the philosophy of aerodynamics to life in general. The paper-plane championship serves as the catalyst through which Dylan learns how to deal with people whose emotional difficulties have made them 'damaged' or antagonistic in some way, whether it is the sarcastic classmate (Julian Dennison) he eventually befriends, the bullying Jason or crucially his own father. The ghost of Dylan's late mother (Nicole Trunfio) hangs over the movie as father and son grapple awkwardly over how best to move on, if at all. Distinguished by a generosity of spirit, Paper Planes delivers a heartwarming message about how everyone is flawed and must persevere together to overcome life's obstacles.
Uniquely among family films Paper Planes allows space for characters to trade personal philosophies. For example Jason's golf champion dad Patrick (David Wenham), a sporting superstar but perfectly nice guy aghast at his son's unsportsmanly attitude, tries to teach him winning is less important than how you play the game. Similarly the appealing Kimi shoulders a great deal of the film's subtext when she insists the competition should not be about whose plane flies furthest but creating something surprising and beautiful. She advises Dylan to look to the natural world for answers to life's challenges. Sure enough Dylan does just that. Among the film's foremost assets is a remarkably confident and charismatic performance from young lead Ed Oxenbould. Surely a star in the making. Equally impressive, co-stars Ena Emai and Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke ably handle their strands of the plot, etching lively, memorable characters while the film also allows Avatar (2009) star Sam Worthington a rare chance to show his sensitive side as the dejected, deadbeat dad. The story meanders but the detours, including a World War Two fighter plane fantasy in black and white and a sequence where Dylan tries to send a paper-plane/love letter to Kimi's room, are never less than charming. To its credit the film forgoes one-dimensional cartoon characters for more nuanced, humane drama and pulls it off admirably.