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A Maori myth about a little bird that flits into people’s lives on the wings of misfortune is the spark of inspiration behind the delicate drama of cultural identity, Fantail. The story’s navigation of both the walls that separate and the fluidity that connects white and indigenous New Zealanders might make it too specific to resonate fully beyond home shores. But this modestly scaled low-budget feature marks an intriguing debut for screenwriter-actress Sophie Henderson and her husband, director Curtis Vowell, both of them first-timers.
In a reverse spin on a plot line right out of Imitation of Life, Tania (Henderson) is a blond, blue-eyed white girl, or Pakeha, in her twenties, who identifies as Maori, overcompensating for her pale complexion with her heavily accented speech. She dotes on her dark-skinned younger brother Pi (Jahalis Ngamotu), who has his absent father’s Polynesian good looks. Tania works the night shift at a lonely gas station in the sleepy South Auckland suburbs, sharing an easy camaraderie with her slacker boss Roger (Stephen Lovatt).
In a somewhat schematic plot device that nevertheless works thanks to the two actors’ self-effacing performances and playful physical rapport, the station chain’s regional manager, Dean (Jarod Rawiri), is a Maori who thinks and acts like a white guy. A serious-minded business nerd and an extreme-sports nut, Dean loosens up as Tania begrudgingly reciprocates his clumsy romantic overtures. But she remains focused on her goal of saving enough cash to take Pi to Australia in search of their father. That plan becomes more urgent once Pi goes out of town for a fruit-picking job and falls in with a bunch of directionless crackheads.
There’s a lightness of touch that borders on dreaminess here, which is captivating even if the storytelling is messy and the drama a tad underpowered considering its violent turn of events.
The piece began life as a stage monologue, and those roots remain evident in what could almost be a single-set play unfolding predominantly in the gas station. But Vowell, Henderson and the other actors invest this wispy chamber piece, its characters and their relationships with grace, emotional integrity and lovely moments of unforced humor amid the encroaching despair. The search for self-definition within a divided culture has the lived-in feel of authentic experience, while the bond between Tania and Pi is drawn in lyrical flashes of their childhood.
Fantail is so gossamer-thin it sometimes appears to be at risk of floating clean away. And yet there’s something distinctive here that creeps up on you, casting a quiet but lingering spell.
Cast: Sophie Henderson, Stephen Lovatt, Jarod Rawiri, Jahalis Ngamotu, Vinnie Bennett, Tammy Davis, Cian White
Production companies: Yes Please Films, in association with Curious Film
Director: Curtis Vowell
Screenwriter: Sophie Henderson
Producers: Sarah Cook, Matt Noonan
Executive producers: Aisnley Gardiner, Brett Mills
Director of photography: Ian McCarroll
Production designer: Brant Fraser
Costume designer: Kyle Cooke
Music: Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper
Editor: Richard Shaw
No rating; 83 minutes
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