A stunning yet subtle Cliff Curtis performance, an inspirational true story and a lively directorial touch make for a winning combination.
Watching movies can be a lot like playing chess. With enough practice, you start to anticipate the moves, adjusting your defenses so as not to be taken off-guard. As such, “The Dark Horse” is as good a title as any for a film that takes an overplayed genre — the inspirational mentor story — and still manages to surprise, sneaking up to deliver a powerful emotional experience within a formula we all know by heart: After suffering a nervous breakdown, a Maori chess champ volunteers to coach a group of disadvantaged kids. New Zealand stories seldom travel, but this exceptional true story has potential.
As it happens, the film’s title reflects an earlier telling of the same story: That would be Jim Marbrook’s 2003 documentary “Dark Horse,” a portrait of speed-chess star Genesis Potini, who was a formidable opponent on the board, bringing unconventional, combustible energy to a game most play with polite inscrutability. Potini also suffered from bipolar disorder, which is how we first encounter him in James Napier Robertson’s second feature (after 2009’s “I’m Not Harry Jenson”).
“Gen,” as big brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi) calls him in the film, seems clearly disconnected from the real world as he lumbers through the rain to the local chess shop, draped in a colorful patchwork quilt. This giant, gentle bear of a man will surely look familiar to admirers of such exceptional Maori stories as “Whale Rider” and “Once Were Warriors,” though we’ve never seen actor Cliff Curtis looking quite like this: With a shaved head and a missing-teeth mouthpiece, the Kiwi star appears completely transformed, playing a figure whose potentially intimidating physical presence is offset by a clear awareness of his own frailty.
That unpredictability — the sense that Gen could lose control at any moment — gives the film an edge seldom found in the genre’s typically mellow fare. Here, it’s the raw tone, the ragged camerawork and the revealing performances that allow “The Dark Horse” to hustle its way into our hearts.
Determined to add some stability to his life, Gen volunteers to help the Eastern Knights chess club, a scrappy after-school org whose hyperactive members barely understand the game’s basic moves. The group’s patient mentor (Kirk Torrance) is rightly dubious: There’s no sense in exposing already troubled kids to the potentially volatile influence of such an adult. But Gen persists and eventually gets his way, spending the money Ariki gave him for lodging on new chessboards and other supplies, even if it means having to sleep outdoors.
Though the kids’ personal challenges are never made clear, they register as distinct individuals, to the extent that we find ourselves rooting for each of their success when they finally reach the chess championship — an event for which they look alarmingly out of place, like a posse of skater kids who’ve stumbled into a stuffy rich-kid prep school. In the case of Gen’s hotheaded teenage nephew, Mana (James Rolleston, the talented child thesp who made his debut in “Boy,” now in greater control of his seemingly feral energy), that might as well be the case, since Ariki intends for his son to toughen up and join the same biker gang that serves as his surrogate family.
For Mana, showing up for practice and competing in the meet are acts of open defiance, and Ariki isn’t the kind of character you want to make angry, which pulls the openly conflicted Gen into the center of a potentially violent situation — one that feels like something out of a Paul Schrader movie (say, Travis Bickle’s foolhardy attempt to liberate Iris at the end of “Taxi Driver”) rather than the sort of climax audiences might anticipate from this otherwise Disney-appropriate inspirational drama. Not that anyone would mistake it as such. Occasional expletives, some rough material involving Ariki’s gang and a tense cross-cutting sequence toward the end would likely land this film an R rating in the States, potentially limiting exposure for the most deserving cinematic export to emerge from New Zealand in years — and that’s taking into consideration the recent “Hobbit” trilogy, even if this pic’s kings and queens are little more than carved plastic.