Orphans & Kingdoms is a micro-budget mini-feature that deserves a big audience.
In the same month that Kiwi behemoth Hunt for the Wilderpeople breaks box office records with a comedic tale of a young miscreant on the run from the authorities and taken under the wing of an unlikely father figure, it seems entirely appropriate that micro-budget independent Orphans & Kingdoms should also arrive in theatres to present a dramatically alternative perspective on a strikingly similar story.
It’s been a long time coming. Originally produced as part of the New Zealand Film Commission’s long-defunct Escalator programme – in which emerging talent was given a tiny amount of money, told to make a feature film, and assured that audiences weren’t going to be a metric for success – the film was shot in Auckland in 2013 and premiered in the New Zealand International Film Festival a year later.
A labour of love then, for producer Fraser Brown and writer-director Paolo Rotondo. Their gripping tale of worlds colliding on Waiheke Island – Auckland’s hideaway for the rich and famous – is the Wilderpeople flipside; kids escaping from uncaring state care go on a crime spree in the country and discover to their surprise that their definition of family might not be helping all that much.
There’s another successful parallel with Wilderpeople and that’s the casting. Taika Waititi’s film has made Julian Dennison a star – and I hope we see plenty of him in the future – but Calae Hignett-Morgan, who plays the terrifying (and terrified) little thug Kenae, is something else entirely. The smallest actor in the film, he commands the screen whenever he’s on it. Like a character from early Scorsese, his explosive unpredictability helps give the film tension that I haven’t experienced from a local film in years.
Kenae has skipped his last foster home and hooked up with older half-siblings Tibs (Hanelle Harris) and Jesse (Jesse-James Rehu Pickery). Together they’ve arrived on sleepy Waiheke – possibly the only jurisdiction left in New Zealand where the Police take burglary seriously – and break in to one of the many luxury new-builds on the island, thinking they might be able to lie low for a while.
The owner, Jeremy (a terrifically semi-hinged performance from Colin Moy), is an Auckland businessman and on his return home from the last ferry he is greeted with a hockey stick to the back of the head. Taken captive, it seems like Jeremy – or maybe all of them – are destined for a tragic end but an accident sends things spiralling off in a different direction.
One of the script’s strengths is how it manages to switch the balance of power – not just between the have and have-nots but even within the young gang. Only occasionally does it feel like character is being sacrificed for narrative drive and the eventual escape (I’m not saying who) comes across as a little easier than it might have been – perhaps the sleepiness of the Waiheke constabulary can be fingered for that.
Casting the film was an exhaustive process – I counted 17 casting consultants in the credits, more than three times the number of speaking parts in the finished film – but every step was worthwhile as all the actors have powerful moments and all contribute to a potent ensemble.
And although Orphans & Kingdoms started as a micro-budget picture, it doesn’t look anything like it on the screen. I know that these things are often padded out by friends, family and industry generosity, but – with the help of Simon Raby’s sympathetic camerawork, Dick Reade’s sound design and Cushla Dillon’s choices in the edit suite – it looks and sounds a million bucks.
One final thought. At barely an hour and ten minutes Orphans & Kingdoms is a fantastic example of not telling any more story than you have to. Indeed, it feels like that long gestation period has been more like distillation. Everything unnecessary has been discarded. It’s a deeply impressive feature debut for Rotondo and a film that, despite that original advice from the commission, should find an audience everywhere it plays.
More on Orphans & Kingdoms
Graeme Tuckett gives it a healthy four stars for Fairfax.
Sarah Watt agrees for the Sunday Star-Times.
Adam Fresco gives it three stars for Flicks.