Tracks explores the problem of authenticity, what it means, and who perceives it.
"She met the camels and very fearlessly got straight into it. The next time I saw her she had transmogrified into a sort-of version of me."
"I'd like to think an ordinary person is capable of anything." Squinting into the sun, Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) seems about as earnest as anyone who'd say something like this. She's tough and lovely and young and undaunted, and to the rest of us, she doesn't look exactly ordinary. Still, she's undertaking an adventure that's so extraordinary that it might make her seem like it: a trek across 1,700 miles of Australian desert.
Based on the real life Davidson's 1977 trek, Joseph Curran's movie begins pretty much at that beginning, as Robyn comes up with her idea. A couple of brief references to her father, who left the family but also provided her with stories of travel and danger (he lived in Africa in the '20s and '30s), as well as a compass and ambitions, however unformed. Among the memories the film calls up in Robyn's self-explanations and occasional gauzy flashbacks, we see dad leaving and young Robyn (Lily Pearl) so sad to see him go. Her yearning is soon turned perpetual when her mother commits suicide (off-screen, noted in a bit of dialogue), and the little girl appears in slow motion, being pulled to a car by the aunt who will raise her and leaving behind her beloved golden-coated dog.
The dog is key to what you know about Robyn, which is to say, that she doesn't think much of people but finds solace in "my animals". Grown up Robyn has another dog, the fabulous Diggity (the dog who plays her is granted a credit: Special Agent Gibbs). Loyal and loving, Digs provides a warmth not immediately visible in Robyn's other traveling companions, a foursome of camels, who also come with names (and named actor-camels). Robyn plans her journey carefully enough that she spends long months apprenticing as a cameleer with assorted crooks and mentors, men who confirm her distrust in the human race, except for one, Sallay (John Flaus), an Afghan trader who treats her with respect and trains her to handle the generally moody, sometimes frightening beasts of burden.
Robyn's relationship with Sallay helps to shape her relationship with the camels, which becomes increasingly complicated. For as Robyn comes to see her animals as such, the unarticulated relationship is that she is theirs. Of course, they walk, lots, and she walks with them, leading them on ropes tied together. They also take on personalities, at least as much a camel in a few minutes on screen might be able, and also act out a seeming betrayal, wandering off one night while she sleeps. Her reactions are gargantuan, even as Robyn looks so tiny against the endless sand. First she's desperate and afraid (no cell phones in 1977), and then utterly grateful and furious too, when she finds them again, rushing to them, calling them by name, pounding them for leaving and hugging them for staying. It's a mini-movie, this sequence, spanning less than five minutes and so thrilling and distressing at once.
This idea, that life might hang on a single moment, a chance reunion or not, is replayed in less vivid ways in Robyn's relationship with the National Geographic photographer Rick (Adam Driver), whom she accepts as a matter of survival as well. (The magazine funds her adventure based on her promise to write about it and her availability for photos along the way.) As Rick pops in and out, the tensions between them, built on Robyn's economic necessity and understandable resentment, and exacerbated by his loosey-goosey disrespect for the tribes they meet along the way, photographing when he's told not to.
In part, Robyn's feelings about this practice parallels her own dislike of the tourists and other reporters who catch wind of her journey and either stumble on or seek out chances to shoot "The Camel Lady." While she smiles and sits on a camel for Rick in exchange for money, despite her loathing for the performance, seeing as she sees herself as so authentic, she cannot abide these other intruders. She absorbs one terrific lesson when she's traveling briefly through a difficult area with a tribal elder, Mr. Eddy (Roly Mintuma). He sees what the tourists are up to and behaves in a way that frightens them but also gets them to pay cash money for the chance too photograph him looking all scary and "authentic." Robyn appreciates that he's emotional and wily, and also that he can perform his authenticity and still retain it.
She's less able to do this, and this is a point the movie can't quite resolve. As remarkable as it is that Robyn embarks on her adventure, as extraordinary as the resulting photos and story may be, it's an option that Mr. Eddy and his family members wouldn't imagine. Living in the desert, they walk to survive or to get somewhere. They don't do it to prove themselves or to find something that might be missing for them. They're inspirations for white people who pursue this sort of story, the desire to feel capable of anything.