When New Zealand director, Lee Tamahori, first burst on to the scene with 1994’s Once Were Warriors – his personal and visceral take on modern Maori existence – he scared audiences silly. That stunning debut was one of the most confronting domestic dramas of its era. A long stint in Hollywood making solid actioners (Mulholland Falls, The Edge, Along Came A Spider) followed. Now Tamahori has returned to his homeland to make this involving coming of age story. Perhaps it is the fact that it is set in the 1960s but the film, whilst still exploring the same rough contradictions, seems much gentler.
At the heart of the narrative is teenage Simeon (a very solid performance from newcomer, Akuhata Keefe), who is on the verge of becoming a man, with all the attendant baggage that comes with this in his tight-knit community. Mostly, he has to get out from under the over-stern tutelage of his grandfather, who is the feared (and sometimes hated) patriarch of the Manahan clan. The grandfather is played by Once Were Warriors’ Temuera Morison, who delivers another riveting rendition of a fierce patriarch. He is a man unable to accept the waning of his powers, or the way in which his dependents are outgrowing him.
The female leads are good too. The women in the clan hold it all together and attempt to mollify young Simeon by telling him that his grandfather is actually toughest on those who he thinks will amount to something. That may be cold consolation for all the bullying and humiliation, but it also makes the denouement more earned. Also tied in are narrative strands involving the coming sheep shearing contest between two rival families, which play upon genre conventions of the sports drama. This aspect is not the strongest element of the film though. The support playing – including the many child actors – is of a high standard, and the careful cinematography gets both the rugged beauty of the island and its sense of slight backwardness and isolation. This is a story of time and place, but its themes of authentic identity forged in hardship and tough love give it a timeless quality.