On paper, Bellbird reads like a timely piece of local cinema. This slice-of-life dramedy about stoic, third-generation farmer Ross (Marshall Napier) and his agriculturally uninterested son Bruce (Cohen Holloway) is likely the first Kiwi film to tap into the discussion around toxic masculinity and its detrimental effects.
Those themes feel ever-present in writer-director Hamish Bennett's debut, though he presents the struggle with a gentle touch. The unspoken struggle between Ross and Bruce is presented as the typical unyielding nature of Kiwi blokes best familiar to those in rural communities, rather than explicitly exploring that particular modern debate.
It is hard to tell if that is his intention or not. The struggle to communicate and the impact it has on father and son forms the crux of the story, but Bellbird also in part feels like a love letter to the rural Northland community where it is set, with sweeping shots of cows and fields and a jolly, relaxed comraderie amongst the wider cast.
The rural setting is mined for all the laughs you can find, producing a surprisingly effective comedy. Bennet and cinematographer Grant McKinnon fit in plenty of mischievous sight gags, aided by fine comedic supporting turns from Stephen Tamarapa and Rachel House, who steals the show as the wry, deadpan Connie.
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At times it can be mistaken for an out-and-out comedy, but Bellbird is wonderfully tender and emotive. Napier shines in finding small ways to express Ross' emotional turmoil, and his all-too-brief scenes opposite Annie Whittle's eternally relatable Beth set the stage for the battles to come.
Newcomer Kahukura Retimana as local boy Marley delivers a star-making turn reminiscent of James Rolleston in Boy, the same country carefree attitude masking a more nuanced personality, the perfect opposite to Holloway's stunted, struggling Bruce.
All three male leads get to dig into the depths of their characters as Bellbird nears its end, and the father and son journey out of emotional repression provides several heart-warming and beautifully tender scenes. Yet the film stumbles at the finish line, tying the story up in a neat, sweet bow that misses the chance to fully dissect the impact of a lifetime of letting everything go unsaid.
Cast: Marshall Napier, Cohen Holloway, Rachel House, Annie Whittle
Director: Hamish Bennett
Running Time: 96 minutes
Rating: M (Offensive language)
Verdict: Charming local debut shored up by fine performances and tenderly comic script