This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 8th June 2014
Given the challenges inherent in limited funding routes and a tiny market, it is no mean feat to produce your first movie in this country – let alone one with a strong local voice and engaging performances which neither takes the mickey out of our special brand of parochialism nor plunges us into Sam Neill’s famously identified “cinema of unease”.
Kudos therefore goes to writer and lead actress Sophie Henderson and director Curtis Vowell for producing a feature debut that is as charming as its eponymous bird, as resonant as any contemporary Noo Zild story and manages to be both gripping and chortle-out-loud.
Young Tania works nights at the local Horizon petrol station (loosely set in South Auckland) where she listlessly stacks products into enticing fluoro pyramids while dealing with the perils of the late-night, fuel-buying customer. Tania’s aspirations for the future extend to saving up to take her darling younger brother to Australia to see their dad. But her present doesn’t look very promising.
It’s a slightly audacious move for a young Pakeha woman to speak with a Maori accent in any onscreen context in this country, but it’s a mark of Henderson’s sure-handed writing and wonderful characterisation that her Tania is entirely credible as a girl caught between two cultures, holding a deep sense of belonging to one. Tania’s lilt endears us to her immediately, and is then played to great comic effect when her store supervisor chides her for talking like that – “Horizon would appreciate it if you’d stop using the voice”. The fact he is himself Maori but doesn’t subscribe to any notions of tangatawhenua underscores the irony.
Despite its virtually singular setting and a cast of no more than four main characters, Fantail tells a terrifically engaging story which touches on themes of familial longing, identity, loyalty and freedom. Crucially, every actor puts in an understated yet beguiling performance – well, apart from the hilarious Jarod Rawiri who isn’t actually subtle at all but enlivens an awkward nocturnal courtship with self-deprecating goofiness. As Dean the supervisor he takes his own advice to the extreme, telling Tania she needs to work on her “positive non-verbal communication” before going all out in his efforts to show off his physical prowess.
The well-crafted story trips along at quite a pace, proffering surprises as well as flashes of nastiness. Thankfully, this delightful girl is with us all the way.