Australian film-maker Warwick Thornton has a pithy description of the opening scene of his debut feature, Samson and Delilah: in a single long take, we watch as a young man stirs, wakes, dresses and takes a long inhalation of petrol fumes. Charley Pride's Sun Shiny Day plays gaily on the soundtrack.

The shot, Thornton says, tells us "we're not in Kansas anymore". He's quoting The Wizard of Oz, of course, and the desperate irony is apt: it's hard to imagine anything further removed from that happy fairytale than the run-down, dirt-poor Aboriginal settlement in central Australia where the film is set.

But this is no worthy and well-meaning documentary about social disadvantage. It's a teenage love story of a very special kind.

Samson and Delilah has received ecstatic reviews across the ditch and won Thornton the Camera d'Or, the prize for best first feature, at Cannes in May. It was named Australia's official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2010 Academy Awards.

These are big achievements for a very small film which has four characters (only one of whom says more than a word) played by locals, none of whom had ever acted.

"I knew I was making a tiny little film," says Thornton, who was in town this week, "but I wanted it to be a special tiny little film.

"I didn't know whether people would like it. It's a film in which the two main characters don't talk to each other, so we really downscaled the whole thing, got rid of the [big crew] ... and just shot it."

Those two characters are not your classic cinematic lovers: one's a petrol-sniffer and they spend half the film living under a bridge in the centre of Alice Springs. They never kiss, much less make love. But this is a love story, says Thornton.

"You can't make a teenage love story set in an Aboriginal community in the present day without it having this stuff in it."

Perhaps inevitably, because the film confronts audiences with the reality of life for many Aboriginals, he has found himself burdened with the expectation that he can provide solutions to deep-seated problems.

"Yeah, well," he says with a rueful smile. "The questions [from journalists] aren't: 'So, what's it like working with Adam Sandler?' But if you're going to make a film like this, you're going to have to cough it up and talk about it. I'm very clear that I don't have answers; I have questions ... so let's have that dialogue."

That dialogue has included some heated criticism from Aboriginals angry at what they see as washing dirty linen in public.

Thornton is unrepentant: "You can bottle it up and let it fester or you can put it out in the sunlight and clean it up and let it heal."

The film-maker knows the landscape of the film.He was born (in 1970) and bred in Alice when it was an Aboriginal town rather than a tourist mecca, but his roots are north: his mob is Kaditchee, from around Barrow Creek.

Dispirited settlements such as the one the film depicts are familiar to him. Crucially, they were familiar to his cast, too. Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson, who play the two title characters, were local kids.

"I could have cast a couple of Aboriginal actors who had just come out of NIDA [Australia's foremost acting school] but I needed these two because they grew up around there and understand where the story comes from.

"They've seen friends sniff, they've seen cousins being bashed. So I would tell them [something horrifying] that was happening in the next scene and they would nod and say: 'OK, no worries'."

The script may be almost devoid of dialogue, but the film wasn't improvised, Thornton says. "It's full of massive detail - 'He picks it up with his left hand. He looks at it closely. He's confused' - so what happens in the scene I was very clear about. But how long the scene took, I didn't care. I let [the actors] dictate how long it was going to be."

Unusually for such a small-budget project - the film cost A$1.6 million ($2 million) and has taken almost twice that in local release alone - Thornton shot on film.

The choice reflects his background as a cinematographer: the ability to adjust apertures, unavailable on digital cameras, meant he never had to use artificial lighting to penetrate the stark shadows cast by the Northern Territory sun. One crew member's sole job was lifting the heavy Panavision camera on and off Thornton's shoulder.

"Sometimes I would sit the camera on a beanbag on a milk crate, but mostly it was hand-held. It gives the audience the sense of just standing next to [the two characters] watching their world evolve."

Thornton was writing the script for Samson and Delilah when then-Prime Minister John Howard announced the Northern Territory National Emergency Response, a package of highly contentious measures ostensibly intended to address rampant child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities.

Like many Aboriginals, Thornton regards the measures as cynical politicking and the development made him "bloody angry".

"I wanted to rewrite the film, make it political. Have the army coming in and kids being corralled into mobile clinics to be checked for venereal diseases and so on.

"But then I thought: 'Hang on. What's going to happen is that the film will be current but then it will date'. And that's what would have happened. The intervention will come and go but these kids will still be here."

Who: Warwick Thornton, award-winning Australian director
What: His debut feature, Samson & Delilah
When: Screening at cinemas now