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The Strength of Water

The performances of the young leads (cousins in real life) are phenomenal.
The performances of the young leads (cousins in real life) are phenomenal.

Rating: * * * *

Verdict:Small but powerful local debut is a remarkable achievement.

Modest in scale and ambition but with a heart the size of the Hokianga where it is set, the best local release of the year so far is proof of how a film's fortunes are decided when it is written.

It's the first feature script by accomplished playwright Briar Grace-Smith (though she pays tribute in pre-release interviews to the contribution of director Ballantyne - "a great bullshit detector") and it's been in the works since last century: it was selected for the first New Zealand Writers' Lab in 2001 where it was mentored by the likes of Troy Kennedy Martin who wrote the electrifying Edge of Darkness for the BBC in the mid-80s.

What has remained after that long development process, which included a trip to Sundance, is a story of beautiful simplicity which seems deeply rooted in the soil of the land where it was filmed.

There's a deceptive casualness about the movie; it unfolds quietly, like a small-town Sunday, and you don't realise until the last few minutes quite how firmly it's taken hold of your heart.

The narrative point of view is kids'-eye: life is plainly not easy for this family but Brunning and Moriarty, as the hard-pressed parents of the two main characters, are observed almost in passing as large figures who are always telling the children to get outside.

And that's where 10-year-old twins Kimi and Melody (Paparoa and Mayall-Nahi) are happy to be, roaming the hills and beaches near the family poultry farm with their favourite chook, Aroha.

The arrival of the hooded, taciturn Tai (Barber) to take up residence in the ramshackle house of his late grandfather causes a small but seismic shift in the balance of the tiny settlement. But the change is nothing compared to what's coming: barely half an hour in, a freak but horribly plausible accident upends the life of the twins.

It possibly risks giving away too much to remark that there's a strong thread of magical realism running through the film's second half. But it's quite unforced and seems all of a piece with the effortlessly spiritual tone of the tale.

Grace-Smith has created that wonderful thing: a story that is richly and intensely of this land but whose concerns are so universal that it could, with small adjustments, be set in Iceland or Japan. It is a remarkable achievement.

Ballantyne and cinematographer Bogumil Godfrejow (the co-production financing required some key creatives to be European) make the Hokianga coast a living breathing thing, at once threatening and nurturing, and the performances, particularly of the two kids, are beyond praise. If the story leaves a few loose ends hanging - notably what happens to Tai and the local woman he takes up with - it seems a small flaw in a compelling and very accomplished debut. Don't miss it.

Peter Calder

Cast: Hato Paparoa, Melanie Mayall-Nahi, Pare Paseka, Isaac Barber, Nancy Brunning, Jim Moriarty

Director: Armagan Ballantyne

Running time: 86 mins

Rating: M (offensive language, violence, sex scenes)


- NZ Herald

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