The barren lives of members of an urban Maori family are rigorously exposed in this rugged and painful picture, based on Alan Duff’s novel, which was a Kiwi bestseller. Though the film has opened strongly on its home turf via Footprint Films distribbery, it looms as a tough sell elsewhere; non-U.S. films about minority groups have rarely made it with mainstream audiences, and first-time director Lee Tamahori’s brave pic is likely to prove too unrelentingly violent for the arthouse crowd.
Pic deserves nurturing, because it’s one of the best to emerge from New Zealand in quite a while. Tamahori, working from Riwia Brown’s intelligent script, has done a marvelous job in depicting the day-to-day horror of the Heke family, which is held together only by its women, the sorely tried Beth and her eldest daughter, 16-year-old Grace.
Beth comes from a noble Maori family, who disapproved of her marriage to Jake Heke some 18 years earlier; she left her roots to live in the city with her hard-drinking spouse and, over the years, they’ve had five children.
But the family is falling apart, mainly due to Jake’s irresponsibility. Out of work, he spends his welfare money boozing at a bar with his mates and getting into fights, and he regularly brings a crowd home for more drinking and eating.
Jake’s fiery temper has estranged him from eldest son Nig, who has left home to join a tough street gang; the younger children despise him, too, because he regularly beats Beth when he’s drunk.
Now second son Boogie is also in trouble with the law, but the night before his court appearance, Jake beats Beth so badly that she’s unable to support her son at the hearing, as she’d promised. As a result, Boogie is sent to a juvenile detention center.
Meanwhile, Grace occasionally visits her homeless friend, Toot, who lives in an abandoned car under a freeway. During yet another of her father’s drunken nights, Grace is raped by one of his drinking mates, which triggers the film’s tragic climax.
New Zealand’s Maori community has traditionally been better treated than minorities in other countries, notably Australia’s Aborigines, so it comes as a shock for viewers to be exposed to this desperately sick environment.
“Once Were Warriors” (the title is a sad reminder of a noble past) would be unrelentingly downbeat if not for the magnetic performances of the lead players and for the fact that, despite the drinking and violence, the relationship between Beth and Jake is, against the odds, a warm one. Scenes in which husband and wife spontaneously sing together are wrenchingly touching when placed alongside the ever-present violence.
It could be argued that Tamahori overdoes the level of violence, overstating his point and risking the alienation of his target audience. But this is an in-your-face slice of realism, and the violence is certainly not exaggerated.
Rena Owen plays Beth with distinction, creating a believably passionate woman whose life hasn’t turned out the way she planned. As Jake, Temuera Morrison manages to invest this brutal, shiftless character with charm.
Among the generally excellent supporting cast, Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell shines as the tragic Grace.
This is a remarkably assured first feature, executed with total confidence. A major asset is the brooding cinematography of Stuart Dryburgh (totally different from his work on “The Piano”), and Michael Horton’s editing is a precision job.
Further fest exposure should help build public and critical support for this excellent, but troubling and challenging, film.