★★★★½ - STUFF
- An angry, funny and deeply loveable gem of a movie -
Bunny is a survivor. But even the hardiest people occasionally need a break – and life isn't handing any of those to Bunny right now.
We learn early in The Justice of Bunny King that Bunny doesn't have custody of her two children and that she has served prison time in the recent past. These facts are not unconnected.
Bunny is dossing at her sister and brother-in-law's house, where her teenaged niece Tonyah also lives, while she hunts for a secure place for herself.
But, a decade or more of venality and incompetence has left New Zealand with a profound shortage of housing and Bunny's chances of finding a place she can afford are remote at best. Drifting back into sleeping rough, with all the perils and lousy coping strategies that come with it, seems perhaps inevitable.
And then, life chucks yet another grenade Bunny's way, and she finds herself more-or-less a fugitive, with Tonyah now along for the ride. Bunny's only real plan is to get halfway across the North Island to see her daughter on her birthday, as she has promised her she would.
As Bunny, Australian Essie Davis – and director Gaysorn Thavat – take this tough and potentially grim material and make it fly.
Bunny is a hard-bitten woman facing down an impossible situation – and she is doing it from a place of emotional fragility. But crucially, Davis and Thavat never let Bunny slip into pitifulness. Bunny is witty, likeable and vulnerable as all hell. She's a scrapper and a relatable hero within this narrative.
There is something of Smash Palace in Bunny's DNA, with a similar tale of an essentially decent person driven to desperate actions by a situation that seems unresolvable within the law. Sophie Henderson's (Fantail, Baby Done) script – with Thavat and Gregory King – is lean, propulsive and human, with moments that conjure up everything from I, Daniel Blake to Dog Day Afternoon.
But this is also an essentially 21st century New Zealand film, with the impersonality of social services and the chasm we have allowed to develop between the people who own the houses and the people who don't; the engines of Bunny's actions here.
It deserves to at least take its place next to Taika Waititi's Boy and The Hunt For The Wilderpeople – as well as Smash Palace and a few of its compatriots – as a film we will embrace and refer to, when we talk about who we are as a nation.
A few months back, I watched The Painter and The Thief – a Norwegian documentary on an artist and the relationship she developed with the man who had stolen a couple of her paintings. It occurred to me, watching that film, that “the thief”, no matter what his past, addictions and mental health struggles, always had a place that he could call his home. Although The Painter and The Thief didn't draw attention to it – perhaps in Norway, such things are accepted as normal – that film might have had a different, more tragic outcome without the Norwegian public housing system.
While in this country, that can produce more food and energy than it needs and which has all the raw materials necessary to build houses for people to live in, we can watch a film that is driven by the desperation of people who just need shelter. It seems as cruel, as it is unforgivable.
The Justice of Bunny King is an angry, funny and deeply loveable film. While there are deadly serious issues at its heart, it remains deft, warm and witty.
Apart from a few characters who veer towards caricature, everything here is pretty much unimprovable. And in Davis – and Thomasin McKenzie as Tonyah – there are a pair of binary stars around which the entire narrative is in secure orbit.
The Justice of Bunny King is a gem. Go see it.
- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF
The Justice of Bunny King is now playing at Light House Cinema!