Directed and Written by James Napier Robertson
This unique coming-of-age tale came from New Zealand last year. I missed it at the cinemas but bought it as soon as it hit DVD… The other day I finally watched it. I don’t know what I was waiting for, as this flick is as good as I had read. It also proved to be the kick in the arse I needed regarding my studying of Youth Work, as the story revolves around a mentally ill man who finds hope and stability in supporting a group for troubled youths.. Which is essentially what I want to do. He knows pain and can relate to these young people, even if some of them think he is crazy.
The movie begins on a depressing note as we see that Genesis is not well; wondering the streets in the rain aimlessly, talking rapidly to himself. He is followed by a social worker and ends up in the mental health ward of a hospital. To be released, he needs a carer to say that they will keep an eye on him. Genesis has only his brother to turn to, who doesn’t understand Gen’s illness at all. His brother agrees to say the right things to the hospital to keep Genesis out, but in reality he provides more obstacles for Genesis to overcome rather than giving him any type of help or support. This is partly because his brother is involved with a biker group, and despite meeting and getting along with his nephew, Mana, the other bikers laugh at him and it isn’t long before Gen is sleeping on the street.
He may be unwell, but it turns out Genesis was an incredible chess player before his health declined. He finds an ad for a chess club, not realising that the group is more about supporting young people who are going through rough times than it is about chess. Regardless, he worms his way into the group and captivates the young people by referring to New Zealand culture and mythology while teaching them how to play chess. By using New Zealand culture as references, these erratic kids are suddenly focused on something. This flick really flies the New Zealand flag proudly.
Gen finds out about a chess tournament that is in another part of the country. Still slightly delusional, he excitedly exclaims that he will lead the group to victory. This is met with disapproval from the two people who run the group, as these youngsters barely know how to play chess and don’t need their hopes raised for nothing. He persists however and gets his way. Suddenly he is comfortable and in his element; teaching others about perhaps what he loves most. Contrasting this though is the fragile relationship he has with his brother, not to mention the fact Gen is still sleeping on the street.
What really drives this film though is the relationship that Genesis forms with his nephew Mana. Surrounded by bikers who taunt him constantly, it is not a healthy environment and Mana begins to follow Genesis, wanting to be a part of something, anything, even if he can’t play chess. There are some very emotionally tense scenes shared between the two, and I’ll admit I teared up more than once. Both Genesis and Mana are extremely likable characters and the film does a fantastic job of putting them in situations where we worry about them, cry for them, or smile at the connection they share.
Genesis takes his group to the chess tournament but the result of it doesn’t end the film neatly, unlike X+Y, which had a similar premise but lacked the emotional and narrative depth that this film has. Mana wants to play in the tournament but it is happening on his fifteenth birthday, the day when his father plans to have him ‘patched’ and initiated into his biker club. The film cleverly juggles these two stories, one of hope for a mentally ill man helping troubled youths, and one of dread whenever a scene involves biker members. This is all based on a true story, making the film even more influential.
Another thing this film does extremely well is depicting mental illness. When Gen begins to break down mentally I couldn’t help but know exactly how he felt, and it hit me hard. A film has never reduced me to a puddle of tears before but this really ripped my heart out many times. Another part of this riveting story are the mood swings of Genesis, who has bipolar disorder. I cannot commend this film enough for recognising that life circumstances are almost always related to the health of someone with bipolar; when giant obstacles are thrown in front of Gen, the stress causes his health to deteriorate. Conversely, he couldn’t seem more happy when talking about chess. Bipolar is a bitch, I can tell you from experience, and this film captures the highs and lows extremely well.
Cliff Curtis turns in one of the most heart-breaking performances I have seen in a very long time as Genesis, James Rolleston is also excellent as Mana, and these two are supported by a strong, mostly unknown local cast. Especially effective is Wayne Hapi as Gen’s intimidating brother Ariki, who can be thanked for many of the tense scenes.
The Dark Horse is an extremely moving drama; filled with dread and harsh circumstances, simple conversations turn into extremely suspenseful scenes as we wonder how a character will react. The use of silence is extremely effective in helping achieve this, as many conversations are simple but electric, the stretched periods of silence only adding to the tension. Emotions run high throughout, and because the film creates such multi-dimensional characters, we care about what happens to each one. Wearing its heritage on its sleeve, this is easily the best film to come out of New Zealand. Worth a full six-pack, without question.
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