Nobody dared move when the credits began to roll at the end of Rene Naufahu's debut feature film The Last Saint. The audience took a moment to get their breath back, and quite possibly share a collective realisation they'd witnessed something special.
Read more: Koale is a martyr to the cause
Intense, gritty and emotional, The Last Saint is a coming-of-age story and family drama set in Auckland's criminal underworld, and it packs a punch that will linger for days. It tells the story of Polynesian teen Minka's (Koale) struggle to support his P-addicted mother (Vaele).
As a last resort he turns to his estranged father, Joe, for help. Joe, played by Calvin Tuteao, is a drug dealer and strip-club owner who sets up his son to work for the paranoid, psychotic drug dealer Pinball, played by Joe Naufahu.
You can't argue nepotism in the casting of Rene's brother Joe as Pinball; he's outstanding.
A bundle of pulsating, raw energy, Naufahu presents a mesmerising character who is both funny and terrifying as he obsesses over words that begin with "P" and drags Minka into his dark underworld.
For all his scene-stealing though, the heart of the film remains firmly in Beulah Koale's hands as Minka. He brings his well-rounded character to life with genuine emotion and restraint, much as Naufahu (who is mostly associated with Shortland Street) did with his character Erasmus in Toa Fraser's No2.
Dealing with a mentally ill mother is more than any teenager should have to cope with, and in this Beulah's Minka is mature beyond his years. He also handles the world his father thrusts him into with just the right amount of trepidation, and does naive, self-conscious teenager well when he meets love interest Zoe (Sophia Huybens).
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Also deserving of mention is Xavier Horan as Joe's henchman Tiger. A well-dressed, violent thug, Horan also manages to make his character appear somewhat of a gentleman.
There has been plenty of talk about this film being a self-funded passion project, but although more funding would undoubtedly have made life easier for Naufahu, the budget hasn't affected the outcome.
Made elsewhere, The Last Saint may have been more glorified and glossy, but Naufahu's raw, confrontational approach gives this universal story a distinctly local feel.
So too does the extensive soundtrack. Filled with everyone from Herbs to Shihad, Split Enz to Strawpeople, the New Zealand songbook is a little distracting at first but quickly settles into the overall feel.
I'm not qualified to know if this is an authentic look at gang turf wars or P addiction, but it certainly feels it. Some will find The Last Saint polarising and challenging, but you only have to see the news or head to the courts to see the effect of P addiction, and for that reason alone Naufahu should be applauded for tackling the subject.
Cast: Beulah Koale, Joy Vaele, Joe Naufahu
Director: Rene Naufahu
Running time: 110 mins
Rating: R16 (violence, offensive language, drug use and sexual material)
Verdict: A gritty, raw and confrontational urban crime drama