★★★★½ - STUFF
On an isolated, family-run farm, somewhere not too far inland from Whangarei, dad Ross and son Bruce are going through a terrible time.
Not that you would know it, if you closed your eyes. The dialogue in Bellbird accurately represents that near poetry of sparseness and gruffness that a particular breed of rural New Zealanders have at their command. If any of us city types tried to communicate so much with so few words, I reckon we'd faint from the effort.
These men communicate by glance, gesture and absence. Ever since wife and mother Beth died a few months back, they haven't so much struggled to talk, as pretty much given up on the possibility of it.
Veteran actor Marshall Napier (Bad Blood), working with about as much dialogue as you could squeeze on to the back of a postcard while leaving room for the address and the stamps, still essays a portrait of Ross as a once-compassionate man, with little left now but scarring and bruises with which to hold out the world.
Next to him, Cohen Holloway (Top of the Lake) plays Bruce as a vulnerable, decent and clever young man, even if Bruce does seem slower than some on the uptake. It's a nuanced and quite haunting performance, full of watchfulness and honesty.
"Mum used to do the talking for both of us," says Bruce at one juncture, in a line that debut feature writer/director Hamish Bennett must have known would be in the film's trailer as soon as he typed it out.
Bridging the distance between the father and son is Connie (Rachel House, Boy). She's a friend and employer to Bruce and a canny enough judge of character to know that Ross is basically a good'un – and not the one-note "abusive dad" a less mature writer might have presented.
Rounding out the cast, there are likeable turns from newcomer Kahukura Retimana – as the kid next door who lets Ross see some of the joy in life his own son could maybe have had – and Stephen Tamarapa, as the rural vet with most of the film's comic relief at his disposal.
Meanwhile, Annie Whittle's brief scenes as Beth run through Bellbird like sunlight through a dusty window.
Cinematographer Grant McKinnon lets his lenses feast on the countryside's changing seasons and the play of light and dark that the city has forgotten.
Bellbird is a sweet, poignant, achingly well written and quite beautiful film. It tells its story with a minimum of fuss and dialogue, but still leaves nothing uncertain. It is funny when it needs to be, but never backs off from tragedy and loss.
Bellbird might never get the audience numbers of a Boy or a Hunt For The Wilderpeople, but, in many ways, I'll always prefer it to either. Go see it.
-Graeme Tuckett, STUFF
Rated M - Offensive language