Writer and director Hamish Bennett doesn't waste time setting the scene in Bellbird, a heart-warming drama/comedy set in rural New Zealand, and his feature debut.
We're immediately pulled into the lives of married couple and Northland dairy farmers Beth and Ross. Beth (Annie Whittle) is warm, outgoing and creative; while Ross (Marshall Napier) is a man of few words, who sticks to what he knows, farming.
Their son Bruce (Cohen Holloway) has recently moved back to the area and is a mix of his parents' interests and personalities. A quiet bloke, Bruce works at the local refuse station where he repairs other people's trash or turns it into art. The elephant in the living room is his lack of interest or affinity for farming, in what is otherwise a typical farming family.
Whittle isn't in Bellbird for long, but she makes her mark. This is vital, because in what is really a study of masculinity, it's Beth's spirit which helps husband and son through their grief.
Holloway and Napier work well together, delivering nuanced performances that express what neither character is able to say. They present us with complex characters that linger in the mind long after the duration of the film; you might just find yourself wondering how they are getting along.
Rachel House, who plays Bruce's co-worker Connie, only has to step into shot and you're laughing. House has an irrepressible comedic sensibility, but her character isn't just for laughs - someone has to sit at the table and help the two men communicate.
Holding his own against this impressive cast is newcomer Kahukura Retimana, playing Marley, a cocky local youngster who helps Ross out on the farm after school. Retimana steals a scene or two; like House he brings the laughs, but his performance offers much more.
Bellbird unfolds at a good clip and follows the seasonal rhythm of life on the farm. Grant McKinnon's deliberate cinematography and Karl Steven's perfectly pitched score draws you in – Bellbird is very much a love letter to people living in rural communities.
Most impressive though is Bennett's ability to balance such heavy material with a light touch. Bellbird is a joy to watch – a warm, humorous, heartfelt film filled with loss, love and hope that had me laughing out loud one moment, and crying the next.
Marshall Napier, Cohen Holloway, Rachel House