From "The Wizard of Oz" to "E.T.," the urge to return home has been a perennially rewarding theme in movies. But rarely have the stakes of such a journey been higher than in "Rabbit-Proof Fence," Phillip Noyce's searing dramatization of a story of remarkable courage, stamina and spirit. On par with Dorothy Gale and E.T., the movie's three young protagonists exhibit superhuman strength and resourcefulness. But unlike the stories of their screen predecessors, theirs is true, making it all the more heroic.

In 1931 in Western Australia, three young half-Aborigine girls were taken from their home by government authorities and transported 1,500 miles away to a relocation camp where they were to await adoption by white families. The kidnapping was part of a national policy of addressing what white politicians saw as the "problem" of biracial children. (The protagonists of this story were fathered by rural white laborers who then abandoned them.) The Australian authorities devised a system whereby biracial children would be "assimilated" until the "unwanted third race" known as half-caste would be all but eliminated through marriage with whites. As if this weren't bad enough, it turns out the policy was in force into the 1970s, effectively creating entire generations of Aborigines who were violently riven from their own families and cultures.

This shameful theory of social engineering is related in "Rabbit-Proof Fence" by a bureaucrat named Mr. Neville, played with thin-lipped officiousness by Kenneth Branagh. To the Aborigines he is known as Mr. Devil, and it's clear why: He obviously relishes his job of tearing families apart and entertains not a scintilla of doubt as to its implications. Even as despondent mothers and fathers line up outside his office, he delightedly tots up the cost per mile of transporting their children to their uncertain fates.

Little does Mr. Neville know what he's bargained for, though, when his minions snatch up Molly Craig (Everlyn Sampi), her little sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and their cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan). After a wrenching scene during which policemen literally snatch the girls from their mothers' arms, the three are taken, like so many stray dogs, to a Christian mission, where they are forced to speak English and train to become domestic servants. Molly, a sturdy, serious 14-year-old, quickly takes stock of the situation and figures out how to escape. Leading the younger Daisy and Gracie to the empty expanse of the Australian Outback, all the while outsmarting the camp's tracker (David Gulpilil), Molly embarks on a nine-week journey to find and follow the rabbit-proof fence that runs through the country and that will also lead the girls home.

As in so many films that have taken their plots from homeward sojourns, Molly and her charges meet sundry people while making their way, most of whom help the girls, wittingly or not. Noyce directed "Rabbit-Proof Fence" -- which is based on a book by Molly's daughter -- like a thriller, intercutting between the girls' harrowing adventure and Neville's increasingly desperate efforts to apprehend them. It's an effective strategy, one that never overplays the intrinsically powerful emotion of the story. Molly, Daisy and Gracie were almost incomprehensibly courageous; the policy they were escaping was shameful, inhumane to the point of perversity. These things don't need to be stated, they need only to be shown. Noyce wisely lets the characters and situations speak for themselves.

Such simplicity belies Noyce's artistry, which is evidenced in the terrific performances he gets from his three young first-time actresses, all of whom are as strong and unforgettable as their characters. The director also captures the grandeur and sere austerity of the Australian countryside. (When the girls are taken from their mothers, the women collapse into keening heaps, taking on the primal form of the landscape itself.) Dexterously balancing the intimate and the epic, the personal and the political, Noyce has managed to advance a searing indictment and spin a great yarn. "Rabbit-Proof Fence" doesn't end entirely happily. But it is a triumphant story nonetheless, made all the more so by an epilogue suggesting that Molly and Daisy live on, literally as well as figuratively. Film audiences are richer for now knowing their story.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (94 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row) is rated PG for emotional thematic material.

Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan in "Rabbit-Proof Fence."Kenneth Branagh as a social-engineering bureaucrat who clearly loves separating families.