New Zealand playwright Toa Fraser makes a smooth transition to the screen directing "No. 2." This warmly observed drama about a Fijian-Kiwi matriarch gathering her discordant clan around one last fete is formulaic at its core. Still, assured handling and an appealing cast make this a deserving crowd-pleaser that should find friendly theatrical and tube berth in numerous terrains.

New Zealand playwright Toa Fraser makes a smooth transition to the screen directing “No. 2,” an adaptation of his 2000 stage work. This warmly observed drama about a Fijian-Kiwi matriarch gathering her discordant clan around one last fete is formulaic at its core: One can guess grandma’s fate from the start, but only after, all wounds have been healed and every narrative string tied. Still, assured handling and an appealing cast make this a deserving crowd-pleaser (it won the dramatic World Cinema audience award at Sundance) that should find friendly theatrical and tube berth in numerous terrains. Title, however — which in the U.S. is scatalogical slang may have to go.

Ruby Dee (the sole imported Yank thesp) plays octogenarian Nana Maria, whose ramshackle longtime house is perched on Auckland’s Mt. Raskil. Widowed, she now shares the abode with two adult grandchildren — heavy-drinking but loyal Erasmus (Rene Naufahu) and quietly soulful single mother Charlene (Mia Blake) — and Charlene’s young son. One night Nana wakes up, then wakes everybody else up, demanding they orchestrate a “great feast” for the family that very day.

It’s a daunting request, given various factions aren’t speaking to each other and Nana’s own two sons are the most bitterly divided of all — from each other and from her.

Yuppiefied grandson Tyson (Xavier Horan), her particular favorite, has distanced himself from the family as a whole. He happens to be visiting the area, but declines attending until the Danish girlfriend he’s brought — (Tuba Novotny) — persuades him to stop by. Surprising everyone, Nana treats this white stranger as an honored guest, though she’d previously insisted “no outsiders” and only grandkids (“not my kids, they’re useless”) be allowed to attend.

Among other imperious decrees, she orders a pig be roasted in traditional style — though no one wants to kill the cute live one delivered — and that the old, massive, view-blocking trees in the backyard be chopped down forthwith. Adding more tension to her beleaguered grandchildren’s day is the announcement that at the party’s climax Nana will reveal her successor, who will presumably inherit the house.

News of the surprise celebration spreads to other relations, including the children with whom Nana has severed communication, sons Percy (Pio Terei) and John (Nathaniel Lees), along with the latter’s spouse Auntie Cat (Tanea Heke). The snobby brothers loathe each other, yet they can’t resist the pull of discovering just what Nana is up to.

Natch, the long day’s crises, spats and revelations mellow by sunset. Despite the relatively brief running time and large character roll, Fraser is able to make this evolution seem relatively natural and emotionally satisfying. Adding a layer of emotional insight are brief flashbacks to Nana’s youth on Fiji, where her noble family lived a charmed existence sorely missed once a philandering hubby moved them to New Zealand after WWII.

Dee’s aristocratic air and commanding theatricality are put to fine use, while she also limns Nana’s physical frailty and a possible streak of senility. The twenty- to thirtysomething grandkids are played by a sensationally attractive lot who subtly convey the mixed emotions and painful parental histories Fraser wisely refrains from spelling out too bluntly.

Affectionate care has been put into all the film’s visual aspects; though the majority of the pic was shot in 16mm (with exterior night scenes in 35mm), the 35mm print looks fine. Don McGlashan contributes a lovely original score, though use of pre-existing music is occasionally heavy-handed.

No. 2

New Zealand

Production

A New Zealand Film Commission production in association with Working Title Films and NZ on Air of a Colonial Encounters and Southern Light Films production. Produced by Tim White, Philippa Campbell, Lydia Livingstone. Directed, written by Toa Fraser, based on his play.

Crew

Camera (color, 16 & 35-to-35mm), Leon Narby; editor, Chris Plummer; music, Don McGlashan; music supervisors, Chris Gough, Nicky Donoghue; production designer, Phil Ivey; art director, Nick Bassett; set decorator, Milton Candish; costume designer, Kirsty Cameron; sound (Dolby Digital), Tim Prebble; assistant director, Simon Ambridge; casting, Diana Rowan. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema, competing), Jan. 22, 2006. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Ruby Dee, Tuba Novotny, Mia Blake, Taungaroa Emile, Xavier Horan, Miriama McDowell, Rene Naufahu, Antony Starr, Tanea Heke, Nathaniel Lees, Pio Terei.

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