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A film of South Auckland's asphalt and metal

Thursday 12th June 2014

Fantail’s South Auckland keeps its people close. It does it with fences. It does it with locked doors. It does it with barbed wire and bars on windows and concrete walls. There’s some grass. But it's pretty weak. The rest is all asphalt and metal. 

But every so often, Fantail takes us away from ground floor South Auckland. To the top of the Fear Fall at Rainbow’s End, to the empty farmland on the drive to Te Puke, to the green hills of a childhood long past. At one point, the film cuts from the ground floor to a plane in flight, surrounded by nothing but reddish cloud. It’s a jarring cut, because we’ve gotten so used to that asphalt and metal, the stuff that limits where Fantail’s characters can go and what they can do. But Fantail’s relationship with the roads and walls of South Auckland is a bit more complex than that.

Sophie Henderson plays Tania, a grave-shift worker at a small gas station. She lives with her brother, Piwakawaka (Jahalis Ngamotu), and her sick mother. Tania identifies as Maori and is fiercely committed to her culture, in part because of the connection it creates with her long-absent father, a man she’s “tracked” to Surfer’s Paradise. She and Pi are saving to visit, but Pi takes a job as a fruitpicker in Papamoa, causing them to drift apart.

Her identity catches others off-guard. She’s white-looking, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, but speaks with a strong accent and doesn't hesitate to shut down those who think she’s someone other than who she says she is. That includes Dean (Jarrod Rawiri), a Maori training manager with the gas station chain.

It’s in Tania and Dean’s relationship that the film gets the most mileage out of its key theme – personal identity, cultural identity, and how the two intersect. Dean speaks with a sanitised, middle-manager diction and connects with “extreme culture”, a language of dares and physical challenges. A modern identity for a capitalist society, built on “self-improvement” and shallow enrichment. It‘s from that platform that he lectures Tania about the way she gives life to her identity, telling her to “work on her non-verbal communication” and to avoid “speaking like a gangster”. “It’s not attractive,” he says, pushing her to whitewash herself for the sake of business, for the sake of dudes, for his sake.

This’d all play tedious if Henderson and Rawiri weren’t good, if they lacked the dexterity and emotional nuance needed to pull it off. But Henderson’s an intelligent and sensitive performer, foregrounding Tania’s resilience, self-belief and inelegant wit in a way that lets us into the shit she's gotten her whole life because of who she is. Henderson keeps us familiar with Tania’s walls, the barriers she’s put up to stop things from getting to her, so that we immediately recognise and relate to the way those walls erode under pressure. It’s a performance that never treats Tania’s identity as a cloak, never slides into judging the character, and it’s respectful, powerful.

Fences, bars, meshes, streets, grids all dominate the locations, and Vowell doesn’t just use these to suggest a place that won’t let go, a Once Were Warriors for generation millennial

Rawiri's full of a different kind of energy. Where Tania's confident in her space, Dean always seems to be working to claim the space, masking his vulnerability with a big, active presence. He throws himself into a V-sculling dare, parkours his way around South Auckland, runs into a carwash to prove his “extremeness”. It’s not like Dean’s the human equivalent of a marionette, all gangly and constantly moving and bobbing – he’s plenty still. But Rawiri plays Dean as someone always figuratively puffing up his chest, and even when he’s lecturing Tania about fire safety or whether or not she’s Maori, he’s a man conscious of his insecurities and even more conscious of the need to keep them hid. Tania’s secure and confident in her identity; Dean’s got nothing to be confident about.

That’s where the asphalt and metal come in – ground floor South Auckland. Director Curtis Vowell spends all of Fantail proving his confidence and strength as a creator of spaces. Fences, bars, meshes, streets, grids all dominate the locations, and Vowell doesn’t just use these to suggest a place that won’t let go, a Once Were Warriors for the Millennial generation. Instead, Vowell uses them to suggest a place that keeps its people close through the creation and development of a local culture, a local identity. Tania claims her Ngai Tahu heritage with pride; Dean's shallow cultural identity can be traced to his anxieties about class; Pi loses his way in Papamoa for reasons more complex than bad mates.

And perhaps that’s why Fantail feels like it trips at the final hurdle. Its ending feels tidy, workshopped into oblivion. It denies Tania and Pi the complex endings they deserve for something narratively-sound, something foreshadowed and easily wrapped up in five minutes. It doesn’t feel like the same film as the one I just spent 75 minutes falling for. It doesn’t feel like the same film that cut from asphalt and metal to a plane in a reddish sky. But the film I fell for is one of the best New Zealand films of the past decade and, along with eerie 2012 sci-fi Existence, a promising herald for New Zealand microbudget filmmaking.

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