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PARK CITY – There’s a lot of heart and raw emotion in Shopping, which to some extent helps overcome the film’s shaky storytelling and skimpy social context. New Zealander filmmaking team Mark Albiston and Louis Sutherland’s first feature centers on a teenager torn between a difficult home life with his Pacific Islander family and the lure of reckless freedom with a roving band of criminals. Many of the elements are familiar, but the setting in a lonely village on the Kapiti Coast, north of Wellington, is distinctive.
News footage early in the film provides rudimentary background on the immigration situation in 1981, when the story is set. Having been invited to the country in the 1950s to fill the need for unskilled labor, Polynesian immigrants to New Zealand found the welcome-mat withdrawn when the national economy took a dive in the decades that followed. Random checks and dawn raids on immigrant homes fueled racial tensions.
While the writer-directors clearly have made a conscious choice to minimize exposition, greater detailing of this sociopolitical canvas might have helped draw out parallels with many countries around the world, including the U.S. But as evidenced by its thick accents, mumbled dialogue and regional vernacular, this is a film that places a premium on unvarnished authenticity, even at some minor cost to its accessibility.
The son of a Samoan mother (Maureen Fepuleai), teenage Willie (Kevin Paulo) is regularly browbeaten by his white father Terry (Alistair Browning) with reminders that his dark skin means he has to work harder and act smarter than other boys, just to stay out of trouble. In between shifts at a local department store, Willie takes care of his little brother Solomon (Julian Dennison), a sweet-natured, imaginative kid who has created an elaborate fantasy world in his head, perhaps partly to shut out the animosity that surrounds them.
Early scenes of the two brothers biking along coastal roads to Grayson Gilmour’s gentle melodic music establish the loving bond between them. Willie is almost a parent to Solomon, given that their religious mother remains a somewhat remote presence, stuck in her own cultural isolation, and their father is a volatile drunk prone to violent explosions. His brutal beating of Willie over a perceived infraction gives the story an ugly visceral jolt.
Terry’s simmering menace drives Willie to start skipping work and spending time with Bennie (Jacek Koman), a Central European immigrant whose rowdy entourage includes his daughter Nicky (Laura Peterson) and assorted lowlifes. Willie earns Bennie’s paternalistic embrace when he inadvertently provides cover for the eccentric stranger’s shoplifting and then starts actively participating in the group’s robberies.
In the unworldly teenager’s attraction to this wild life of booze, pills, sex and thievery, the co-directors appear to have been influenced stylistically by early Gus Van Sant films. A scene in which Willie fakes an epileptic seizure in a music store while Nicky lifts a cassette seems a direct citation from Drugstore Cowboy. Being absorbed into Bennie’s posse allows Willie to feel a part of something instead of stuck on the outside.
Despite the open hostility of some of his new companions and the potential dangers of involvement with Nicky, Willie seems open to Bennie’s offer to take him along when they pack up their caravan and move on. But Solomon’s vulnerability at home forces his brother to reconsider.
As a coming-of-age drama laced with quiet humor, Shopping has its charms, many of them stemming from the unaffected performances of Paulo and Dennison. But overall, the acting is uneven.
Albiston and Sutherland too often sacrifice clarity and character involvement in favor of a messy visual and narrative approach that tries to make an aesthetic virtue of the film’s rough-edged style.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Cast: Kevin Paulo, Julian Dennison, Jacek Koman, Alistair Browning, Laura Peterson, Maureen Fepuleai, Byron Coll, Matthias Luafutu
Production company: Warp Films Australia
Director-screenwriters: Mark Albiston, Louis Sutherland
Producers: Sarah Shaw, Anna McLeish
Director of photography: Ginny Loane
Production designer: Josh O’Neill
Music: Grayson Gilmour
Costume designer: Lucy McLay
Editor: Annie Collins
Sales: NZ Film Sales
No rating, 98 minutes.
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