A rarely explored sociopolitical context that bristles with racial tension lends raw vitality to coming-of-ager “Shopping,” a rough-hewn but confident first feature from New Zealand duo Mark Albiston and Louis Sutherland. Following a mixed-race teenager as he grapples with his cultural identity (alongside the requisite father issues), this heartfelt pic betrays the helmers’ award-winning background in shorts: Atmosphere is painted with economical, sometimes discomfiting specificity, but an overly terse approach to characterization renders a simple narrative slightly abstruse. Slots in the Sundance competish and Berlin’s Generation sidebar should see “Shopping” ring up further festival dates and select arthouse appointments.
The indigenous Polynesian culture of New Zealand has been the subject of films like Lee Tamahori’s “Once Were Warriors” (1994) and Niki Caro’s “Whale Rider” (2002), and while Albiston and Sutherland’s modest, thoughtful effort has more in common with Tamahori’s film, it doesn’t quite stand up to that pic’s brute power, featuring a slightly more ambivalent study of a disenfranchised people’s bruised pride.
A newsreel prologue lays out New Zealand’s complicated history with Polynesian immigrants, who found key rights revoked as the country’s economy struggled in the 1970s. Accordingly, the 1981-set story offers its young protagonist a choice between hedonistic integration with whites and burdensome loyalty to his half-Samoan heritage, but neither option offers much of a future. Shorn of its racial textures, the 1981-set film is perhaps most reminiscent of Justin Kurzel’s recent, rather more severe debut feature “The Snowtown Murders” in its depiction of festering poverty and barely latent violence in a remote Antipodean community.
Willie (first-time actor Kevin Paulo) lives with his abusive white father Terry (Alistair Browning) and his cowed, barely present Samoan mother (Maureen Fepuleai) in a sleepy coastal village north of Wellington. With neither parent fit for the job of bringing up children — Terry is particularly fond of goading his kids about the social drawbacks of their skin color — Willie has more or less taken on the task of raising his younger brother Solomon (Julian Dennison, another novice), a quiet, intelligent boy given to fanciful yarn-spinning.
Willie balances this responsibility with an uninspiring job at the local supermarket, which is where he first encounters Bennie (Jacek Koman), a charismatic professional thief. Bennie, unlike any adult previously, takes an interest in the emotionally susceptible kid. It’s not long before Willie is welcomed into Bennie’s band of rogues, and making shy advances on Bennie’s snappy teenage daughter Nicki (Laura Peterson), though when he encounters abuse and prejudice in this new family too, he’s faced with a dangerous decision between two unsuitable father figures.
The setup is the stuff of classic family melodrama, but Albiston and Sutherland pursue fly-on-the-wall authenticity at every turn, abetted by Grayson Gilmour’s unobtrusive acoustic score and, more strikingly, the grainy finish and saturated shadows of Ginny Loane’s deliberately unmoored lensing.
This impressive grit occasionally comes at the expense of detailed character motivation — which, combined with the thick local accents, arguably makes this uninviting world appear a bit more alien than it should for outside auds. Still, there’s an engaging emotional immediacy in the performances of the two young stars: For all the fraught father-son dynamics on display, the film operates most movingly as a fraternal love story.