Opal Dream starts with an interesting everyday quandary--how parents should deal with the imaginary friends of their children. Unfortunately, director Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty) and his co-writers Ben Rice and Phil Traill add a few too many pat Capraesque touches for their film to be a complete success.
With Traill and Rice, the author of the 2000 novella on which Opal Dream is based, Cattaneo tells the tale of Kellyanne (Sapphire Boyce), an eight-year-old Australian girl who spends most of her day with Pobby and Dingan, two friends only she can see. Kellyanne's close attachment to her playmates exasperates her family: her mother, Annie (Jacqueline McKenzie), her 11-year-old brother, Ashmol (Christian Byers), and most of all her father, Rex (Vince Colosimo), a miner.
While Rex tries desperately to find opals in mineshafts during the day, Annie works at a store checkout and Ashmol looks after Kellyanne. One day, when Rex takes the children with him to a mining area, he "loses" Pobby and Dingan. Kellyanne pleads with him to return to the site to find her friends, which he does reluctantly. After Rex is caught searching around by the owner of the mine, he is branded a "ratter" and later charged with attempted theft. At the same time, Kellyanne becomes mysteriously ill and eventually lands in the hospital. To cheer up his sickly sibling, Ashmol continues the hunt down the mineshaft and actually finds what he believes are remnants of Pobby and Dingan.
Meanwhile, Rex goes on trial for his supposed transgression, but the charges are dismissed when Kellyanne's deteriorating condition and her role in initiating the mine search are revealed. Honoring his sister's request, Ashmol arranges a funeral for Pobby and Dingan and invites the town denizens. At first it doesn't seem as if many people will attend the ceremony, but once Kellyanne arrives to join her family, others join the service. Thus, the will to believe bonds both the family and the townfolk.
On the surface, Opal Dream could have been another Hide and Seek, last year's Hollywood thriller about a young girl (Dakota Fanning) whose "imaginary friend" is neither imaginary nor friendly. In both films, the parents struggle to find a way to understand their children and in both cases, it turns out, the imaginary friends may not be so pretend. But except for a dash of suspense during Ashmol's nocturnal pursuit and its surprise revelation, most of Opal Dream is precious, in every sense of the word. The quick dismissal of the charges at the father's trial and the It's a Wonderful Life-styled finale turn the bittersweet narrative into pure treacle.
Fortunately, Opal Dream is saved by the charming and believable performances of the leading players. The children, Boyce and Byers, are particularly good and never appear self-conscious or overly cute. Some of the supporting players ham it up a bit but don't get in the way too much. The production credits are first-rate, from the barren outback landscape by production designer Elizabeth Mary Moore (the same exteriors used in Mad Max!) to the neat, unobtrusive camerawork by Robert Humphreys.
Though Opal Dream is a distant echo of the Australian film salad days of the 1970s, the film is pleasant enough to entertain undemanding viewers.