This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 26 May 2013
It’s 1981, yet another Kiwi period piece, with the Kapiti coast photographed in grainy video to evoke a more innocent, carefree era, artfully decorated with Stubbies shorts and frightful wallpaper.
Co-writer/directors Louis Sutherland and Mark Albiston, bolstered by the critical and audience acclaim for their award-winning short The Six Dollar Fifty Man, show the same knack for coaxing extraordinary performances out of young actors in this, their first feature.
Willie is an honest lad with a good heart who regards his little brother Solomon as his best mate. They live with their volatile dad who alternates between loving them deeply and reminding them that, because they’re half-Samoan, life is always going to be tough. Archive radio and TV bulletins underscore the political issues of the day as the boys ride their bikes along the waterfront and muck about at school.
When a foreign geezer of dubious intent appears in town, Willie gets in with his gang of transient ne’er-do-wells and is soon faced with a dilemma. Does he make a break for excitement with people he can scarcely trust, or stick to small town life to fend for his beloved brother?
There are familiar tropes from previous Kiwi films, notably the insistence on a trip down memory lane (seen recently in Two Little Boys and Boy) to the halcyon days of Michael Jackson and legwarmers – perhaps inevitable from our current generation of up and coming filmmakers. Shopping also shows what we delicately call “the darker side of family life” as the boys’ father overflows with frustrations that manifest in lessons taught through physical punishment.
But Once Were Warriors this isn’t. And, remarkably, it even manages to pitch the nostalgia just right – it’s not trying to be funny or kitsch (despite the expert period detail), just an authentic portrayal of the travails of childhood. As a result we are fully immersed in Willie and Solomon’s world without being distracted by the spot-on production design.
The whole film is superb to look at, with incredible photography that resists being flashy for flashy’s sake (of course – we’re New Zealanders, after all). Better yet, it’s not even just the scenery that wows us, but the truly wonderful central performances from a charismatic Kevin Paulo and plucky Julian Dennison, both of whom appear in their first acting roles and carry the story with aplomb. When Paulo’s Willie is wrongly accused and disbelieved, it feels understandable that he might decide “If people are going to think badly of you, you might as well just behave that way” – right?
Sutherland and Albiston have written from the heart and directed with a talented eye to create a worthy new entrant in our local cinematic history book.