Movie review: Maori Boy Genius

By Peter Calder

Ngaa Rauuira Pumanawawhiti in Maori Boy Genius. Photo / Supplied
Ngaa Rauuira Pumanawawhiti in Maori Boy Genius. Photo / Supplied

The most promising thing about this homegrown documentary is that the full title includes the words "Volume 1". By the time Volume 2 happens - if it happens - Brettkelly may have had the chance to contemplate how much part one exploits its subject and manipulates the rest of us.

That subject is Ngaa Rauuira Pumanawawhiti, a bilingual Hawkes Bay teenager who was 16 when the film was shot in 2010.

That he is a young man of enormous poise, charisma and promise is evident from the moment we meet him but the film early on seeks to characterise him as a figure of almost Christ-like wisdom and eerie brilliance.

Pumanawawhiti, unsurprisingly, isn't too keen on the genius label - what child would find that mantle easy to wear? - and, unlike the film-maker, he's smart enough to realise it doesn't fit. His completion at age 13 of courses at a wananga is a credit to him but the film seeks to imply that it's evidence of preternatural academic prowess. Likewise we are expected to think that he goes to Yale, when he actually does some summer school courses there (he does quite well at them, too) but we watch as he is told that only 1500 of more than 22,000 applicants are admitted.

None of this is to belittle Pumanawawhiti's achievements and only a fool would bet against his becoming a major figure both in Maoridom and wider national affairs.

But, in its boosterish approach, the film somehow sells him short; in saying he's more than he is, it patronises him - and us too.

Brettkelly's impressionistic shooting style creates some evocative moments but, like her last film The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins, it is every bit as problematic as its title implies.

* The Dominion Post reported in October that Pumanawawhiti had suspended his studies at Victoria University to promote the documentary in overseas markets.

Stars: 2.5/5
Director: Pietra Brettkelly
Running time: 85 mins
Rating: Exempt. In English and Maori with English subtitles
Verdict: Unwittingly disturbing

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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