Tommy and Lilly (Nicholas Hamilton and Maddison Brown) live with their parents, Catherine and Mathew Parker (Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes) in a desolate town in the Australian outback. We hear a voice-over of the young girl reciting poetry. The underage girl dressed in tight underwear is seen greeting an aboriginal repairman at the door during breakfast. We learn she is only 15 years old. Her mom told her to throw out that tight outfit, but only laughs when the girl smiles rebelliously. We see that her outfits include tight t-shirts and short jean skirts, even going to school in such.
Later that morning, a skater takes her into an empty warehouse after she also flirts with him. It is strongly implied they have sex though not pictured. The boy was told earlier to ‘not let her out of your sight’, but he simply watches as the skater and his sister walk into the warehouse without reaction. Later at home the girl asks to go to a concert in a few days with some friends in another city. The parents seem to think the suggestion is ridiculous, but we are not told why. Over some scenes of home life that day and from the family discussion, we soon see the parents no longer live together, when dad rebuffs mom's sexual advances. It's implied the mom had cheated on dad, and also that they moved here due to their daughter's promiscuity. The dad comments that mom at that age was worse than the daughter (More promiscuous).
Dad watches blankly as his kids jump their fence and then walk out into the desert that night. The next day the school reports they haven't attended in many days, not just that day. A sandstorm hits town and covers everyone in red soot. Mom convinces dad the kids are missing, and they enlist the police (Hugo Weaving) to help. The officer learns that the family moved here because the girl slept with a teacher at her old school. The girl has run away before, and the whole family is looked at with disdain by the townspeople we learn. The parents were reluctant to accept initially, and to open their latest family drama to the town. Mom gives the officer the girl's diary of her disturbing escapades, she discovered in her room. Some pages describe sexual encounters with various parties including her old teacher.
Time is running out on survival in the desert. We learn it only 3-4 days maximum that anyone could survive the elements in the remote desert around the town. Search parties dispatch into the desert, and an investigation ensues, including of the repairman, skater, and her former teacher. Dad, mom, and the officer seemingly conduct their own investigations, interviewing the girl’s lovers and walking around town. The boy's hat is found in the desert. A heavy breather calls mom repeatedly. On one call, a female voice then says, “your daughter is a whore” and hangs up. The characters variously implicate and harass one another. We see sweeping views of the desert during the investigations, showing how difficult survival would be in the harsh terrain with little food, water or other cities nearby.
The officer suggests to mom during their drive around the desert, that running away is often a response to being molested at home, seeming to implicate Dad’s behavior. The officer talks about his own failed marriage. Later, Mom accuses dad of molesting the girl. Dad replies the girls' promiscuity came from mom as the two argue and point blame.
Dad, on his own, drives through the desert and goes to the home of the former teacher in the middle of the night and shouts at him then leaves. The teacher and his family look horrified and say they know nothing about the girl’s disappearance or even that she is missing. Dad finds the young repairman from earlier and beats him unconscious. We see that the police officer had been protecting him by destroying pages of the diary mentioning the repairman. He explains this to dad by saying the repairman could not be capable of harming her, without further explanation. The aboriginal repairman is mentally limited or handicapped it is implied from his speech and how others talk to him, but not explicitly stated. The teen skater is also dismissed as harmless by the officer in the investigation though he confirms the two had sexual relations.
During the investigation, Mom tries again to seduce the dad, this time successfully. She then later seduces the young repairman, seemingly out of grief, but he rejects her advances. Her increasingly promiscuous behavior is not explained, but her frantic and pained expression imply that mom is dealing with her grief or anxiety through sex, again showing disturbing parallels between mother and daughter.
Dad drives through the desert daily and finally finds his son lying in the desert, barely alive. He at first is hospitalized and mute, but dad takes him home, and the couple strongly question him about his sister. After mom shouts at her son to answer her, she leaves. Dad questions him alone, and the child finally tells him his sister got into a car in the desert but knows nothing else.
Mom has left the boy before he speaks to dad, and now tries to seduce the officer in his home, who also rejects her advances. She screams why is she not good enough incoherently and runs out. She wanders naked and incoherent in the desert overnight. Dad helps mom recover after she wanders into town in the morning. During a bath, he gives her the news their daughter got into someone's car in the desert, whereas she otherwise would have perished from exposure by now.
Dad admits to mom he saw the kids walking into the desert that night, but did not go after them because he was angry with his daughter. “I wanted to punish her,” he says. Mom lies on the bed with him and does not seem to blame him. The two both seem relieved or resigned as they discuss the news that their daughter got into a vehicle, means she did not have to survive exposure to the elements in the desert. Dad says maybe she just ran away again, but does not seem overly convinced. The parents cry together, with their girl's fate unknown.
We see sweeping views of the harsh and beautiful desert, and again hear a voice-over of the girl's haunting poetry.
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