The Rocket is a triumph of the will of its protagonist, young Ahlo, who is played by the ebullient and charismatic Sitthipon Disamoe. Ahlo's very birth -- he is the surviving half of twins delivered by his mother -- marks him as cursed in his rural Laos village.
His cruel grandmother ceaselessly reminds him of the bad luck his birth continues to bring on their family. Worse yet, the circumstances of their existence seem to confirm their contention. A dam displaces them from their ancestral home, and on the journey to the new housing provided by the Australian hydroelectric company, his mother is killed.
But Ahlo is neither delusional about his outcast status nor does he let it dampen his zeal for living. Ahlo's cup is full all the way. It runneth over, even. That it does so despite his surroundings ought to leave a pep in your step and open you up to the peculiar world around you. Ahlo can make friends with anyone, even a James Brown-obsessed drunk that goes by Purple (Suthep Po-ngam) and his niece Mali (Alice Keohavong). And he is independent and resourceful enough to hijack a power supply to make Purple's TV run and to build a glorious, potentially competition-winning rocket, as the film's title hints.
Ahlo's surroundings are radically different than anything you would find here in the United States. The Rocket was written and directed by an Australian, Kim Mordaunt, but was shot entirely in Laos, a largely forgotten nation in the West that, as the film highlights, is exotic, beautiful and damaged. You almost want to vacation there until you see Ahlo dance around a land mine or use an unexploded bomb in part of his rocket.
Foreign as the setting is, Ahlo's story is supremely accessible. Mordaunt infuses the film with darkness and a hazy, brilliant, orange light. Almost everyone around him is there at one point or another to push him away or take him down a notch. On the pitch-black night he was born, his grandmother encourages his mother to kill him, and pretty much never stops questioning his very existence from that point on. But Ahlo himself is the counter-balance to all this negative juju, a wide-smiling, persistent, spunky spirit who won't give up on anything, not on his boat when his family is displaced or on Purple's TV or on the rocket he starts building in hopes that it will give his family enough money for a parcel of land in a new village.
Critically, though, Ahlo's upbeat nature isn't a dumb bit of Forrest Gump-style realism. Morduant's darkness and light gives the film a full spectrum of emotions and yet still comes out on the optimistic, uplifting side of things. It's a simple joy against set against a strange and wonderful backdrop, making it a pleasure from start to finish.