We watched two recent New Zealand movies over the last few days, firstly The Dark Horse (2014), with Cliff Curtis and James Rolleston, and Fantail (2013), with Sophie Henderson - who also takes the lead role.
Fantail, for my taste, is rather too slow in its set-up. There's a kind of dreamy quality about the first half hour or so, and you begin to wonder when the story is going to appear. Henderson is terrific in her role of a young girl working all night in a petrol station while caring for her invalid mother in the daytime. Her younger brother (Jahalis Ngamotu), who's plainly Maori - while she's plainly white - is likely to go off the rails, and does. The daytime worker, played by Stephen Lovatt, is a fatherly figure who cares a lot about Sophie's wellbeing. It's possible he is her actual father, though we never find out. And then there's the 'regional manager' a loser trying to impress. This is a comedy role, played nicely enough by Jarod Rawiri, but it's sometimes at odds with the rest of the movie, which heads deep into drama territory.
The film's basic story is strong enough, except there's just not enough of it. Too much of the movie's weight is loaded onto Henderson's shoulders; we certainly get to know her, but the three supporting roles seem a bit underwritten. The small budget means there are few other characters, mostly seen only briefly. It's a bit of a puzzle why this petrol station needs someone working there all night when there are hardly any customers, and when the customers appear to prepay to get the petrol (a couple don't, which is one of the inconsistencies). It seems highly uneconomical. There are other inconsistencies too; none of them are major, but they film loses credibility as a result of them. And the ending, which is certainly dramatic enough, isn't quite believable. I won't say what happens, because the movie is worth seeing; it just felt that a bit more tension might have been useful.
The other film has a bigger budget, a top-notch star in the main role, and a bunch of strong actors around him. Cliff Curtis eschews his normal good looks, and appears here padded with a pot belly; he walks oddly, and is missing some teeth and hair. Rolleston, who is excellent, has a smaller role, but some vital scenes. This young man seems born to the screen.
The story is (loosely) based on the true story of Genesis Potini, a brilliant chess player who had mental health issues most of his life. He was in an out of institutions much of his adult life. In the movie, his older brother, Noble, (Kirk Torrance) who taught him to play chess as a child, is officially in charge of him now that he's out of the hospital, Noble isn't interested in looking after him (Potini winds up sleeping rough); he's even less interested in seeing his son yearning for the kindness and gentleness that Potini exudes. Noble is also a longstanding gang member, and wants to initiate his son (Rolleston) into the gang. Meanwhile, Potini has seen potential in a bunch of kids from poor backgrounds who are part of a chess club formed by an old friend, and decides he can help. It's also a way of his staying sane, though whether the idea of taking them to Auckland for a Chess Championship is sane is another matter.
The format of the story is by no means new, but it's given plenty of energy and life by the actors. The gang scene is portrayed as a vicious dog eats dog world where the only way to keep alive is to be as bad as everyone else. Drugs, alcohol, loud music abound (as they do in a sequence in Fantail), and violence is common. This is possibly a world many pakeha (white New Zealanders) don't know a lot about, particularly at my end of the country.
Dark Horse is a two-hour movie that might have done with a bit of trimming. Nevertheless, Curtis and Rolleston keep the screen alive throughout.