Present day Gisborne, New Zealand. A man bedecked in a colourful blanket stumbles haphazardly in the pouring rain, he ends up in a local shop playing chess against himself, confused, upset and causing consternation to other shoppers.
An impressive opening sequence as we are introduced to “Genesis” (Cliff Curtis), ex-chess champion a.k.a “Dark Horse”. “Genesis” long ago crossed the thin blurred line from brilliance to mental illness and remains a man in need of continued help.
However, if “Genesis” remains on his medications to control his bi-polar condition, he can function quite well, albeit with support, home stability and a solid nights sleep. He can leave full time care, provided he has a sponsor willing to vouch for him and provide shelter.
Such assistance is provided in the most precarious of circumstances by his brother “Ariki” (Wayne Hapi), a “patched” gang member preparing to assimilate his own son “Mana” (James Rolleston) into the same violent culture.
This fragile, unpredictable and openly hostile environment is hardly ideal for any form of recovery but the story steers us further away from even these barely sheltered waters. “Genesis” must find something, anything to act as a sheet anchor to cling to, eventually finding a handhold in the local community.
“Eastern Knights” Chess club, run by “Sandy” (Miriama McDowell) and “Noble” (Kirk Torrance), represents a euphemism for keeping the kids off the street and out of trouble for an hour. “Genesis” finds a glimmer of salvation as he attempts to pay his gift forward by inspiring the motley group of youngsters to learn the game and thereby find their own way.
This sounds like a tough watch and on occasion makes for uncomfortable, uncompromising viewing. However, the violence is kept largely off screen, yet the realism remains front and centre. With sympathetic direction from James Napier Robertson and helped by a superb central layered performance by Cliff Curtis, this is inspiring stuff indeed.
There are elements of humour, especially the contrast as two worlds collide later in the story, bringing some nervous yet honest audience laughter.
For those of us fortunate not to live in such circumstances, it is difficult to believe such environments exist in NZ. However daily news stories confirm this is real, yet it is difficult to see how these cycles can be broken. Here was a man despite his own limitations willing to try, hope and redemption struggling to the surface like fragile blades of grass in a concrete yard.
Jamie Rolleston as “Mana”, continues his promising acting journey from the earlier “Boy” to a character on the cusp of manhood. Teetering on the edge of decisions that will define his life path. Whether he can be saved and perhaps rescue those that also care for him, is the subject of the film.
The film is based on the true story of the late “Genesis Potini”, depicted here with the usual creative licence and abridgement necessary in any screenplay. First time actor Wayne Hapi, as the brother of “Genesis” is also hugely impressive, using stillness and silence to convey what the character cannot or dare not. Minimal acting, yet speaking volumes, which is what screen presence is all about.
Ultimately a story that illustrates that people will do whatever it takes to protect their own, the only way they know how, even if it may ultimately destroy that which they seek to protect.
This is not only an excellent Kiwi film but a good film full stop, enjoyable by any audience despite the obvious localised content.
The drama on display is universal, the setting irrelevant, yet the film will show an international audience, if the film makes that leap, that “Hobbits” are not the only characters in New Zealand with obstacles to overcome.
Excellent, highly recommended