The second production (and the first to be released commercially) of the Film Commission's Escalator scheme, this dark and polished drama exudes an assurance that belies its limited resources and short shooting time.

A feature-film debut for director Vowell and lead actress Henderson (Bailey in Outrageous Fortune), who developed the script from a monologue she wrote in drama school, it has a dreamy, quasi-mythical quality that suits its impelling idea: the Maori notion of the fantail (piwakawaka) as a harbinger of death.

That sounds arty, but it's not at all. The film's symbolic framework never feels forced or phoney and when it delivers its payoff in the final reel, it is quietly devastating.

Henderson plays Tania, a young blonde woman whose belief that she is Maori -- she speaks cuzzie-bro fluently -- starts out as an oddball joke. But as the layers of the story peel back, we see the uncomfortable truth at its heart.

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An attendant in the service station where almost all the film is set, she dotes on her goofy brother Pi (Ngamotu), who's always hanging round, and shoulders much of the care of her ailing mother. The pair dream of going to Queensland in search of their father but when Pi heads off to the Bay of Plenty to go fruit-picking, he's no longer under his sister's watchful gaze and things start to unravel.

Watch: Trailer for Fantail

Watch the trailer for Fantail, which has its world premiere at the New Zealand International Film Festival this Sunday (Buy tickets).

Tania thinks she's Maori. She works the graveyard shift at Horizon to save money to take her brother Pi to Surfers. But one night a cheeky little bird ruins everything and Tania pays the ultimate price for being a hero.

Written by Sophie Henderson and directed by Curtis Vowell, funded by the New Zealand Film Commission's Escalator scheme. Starring Sophie Henderson, Stephen Lovatt, Jarod Rawiri, Jahalis Ngamotu, Vinnie Bennett.

The two subordinate characters, Tania's co-worker Rog (Lovatt) and the oil company's regional manager, Dean (Rawiri) are a tad underwritten: Dean, in particular, becomes an intrusive contrivance at times, and never shakes the impression that he's there to make up the minutes.

But the central performances are hugely engaging and the story arc logical and compelling. Better (or perhaps worse), the film exudes a real sense of place: the world it evokes is a place where good humour and heartbreaking sadness rub shoulders every day. Unassuming but impressive.

Cast:

Sophie Henderson, Jahalis Ngamotu, Stephen Lovatt

Director:

Curtis Vowell

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Running time:

81 mins

Rating:

R15 (violence, offensive language, drug use)

Verdict:

Unassuming but assured

- TimeOut