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Bellbird is a Kiwi classic in the making

 

BELLBIRD
directed by Hamish Bennett

Hamish Bennett's nuanced debut about life on a New Zealand farm is a funny and quietly devastating film.

Fittingly, for a film that embraces the seasonal hazards of farming in Northland, Bellbird breaks a drought. There hasn’t been an original drama reflecting contemporary life on the New Zealand farm in a very long time. Nor has there been a feature focused chiefly on – and made chiefly for – adults. Those factors may not sound like much of an achievement, or much to recommend a movie. But Bellbird is a remarkable film, all the more so for being the accomplished debut feature of writer-director Hamish Bennett.

For a story largely about a father and adult son being unable to communicate, this film and its taciturn blokes end up saying rather a lot in what is a funny, sad, affecting and involving drama. It’s also a movie that captures why the rhythm of life in the wops is different, what a loaded term “family farm” can be and how the days are possibly numbered for those running them.

It’s a small ensemble film with some terrific performances from veterans and newcomers alike. Shot in Maungakaramea, south-west of Whangārei near where Bennett grew up, the movie is immersed in the scrappy, scrubby, lumpy landscapes of its location. It has a feel for the place and its community that goes beyond admiring the scenery. Its depiction of a year in the life of one farm – from one summer to the next, from hay to mud to hay again – makes the place its own character.

Read more: Win a double pass to Bellbird and a $100 Kings Plant Barn voucher

Bennett is in familiar territory in other ways, too. His two short films – The Dump (2012) and Ross and Beth (2014) – are clearly the foundations to this. Annie Whittle played Beth in the latter short, about an ageing farming couple, and she’s back in Bellbird, as a character of the same name, opposite a new Ross played by Marshall Napier.

Napier’s usual gruff charm taps into something deeper here and becomes what might be a career-best performance. That’s helped by Bennett’s understated writing and spare dialogue. When Ross finally confesses his emotional state – “Most days now, I’m just sore” – it’s quietly devastating and there’s more where that came from.

The Dump was set in a recycling centre – the local refuse station is Bellbird’s secondary location and its child character is echoed here in youngster Marley, the kid next door played by newcomer Kahukura Retimana in a delightful performance that is an inevitable reminder of those young graduates of the Taika Waititi acting school. The presence of Cohen Holloway as Bruce, Ross and Beth’s son, as well as Rachel House, as his recycling-centre boss and seemingly only friend, also connects some dots to Waititi-world. But Bellbird’s laughs are unforced, incidental and, unlike the film’s Greek chorus – its very photogenic jersey herd – never milked.

It’s hard to describe the plot without giving away a pivotal point that makes the story mostly about Ross and Bruce, and how we don’t always grow up to become our fathers’ sons no matter how hard either generation tries. Holloway is terrific as Bruce, a guy not cut out for life on the farm. But, like almost everyone else, he’s a nuanced, complicated, lonely character who is trying to be a dutiful son while hoping to escape life in the milking shed.

Bellbird is a perfectly tuned piece of work; it’s the best New Zealand film of the year and a classic in the making.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★★

Video: Transmission Films

This article was first published in the November 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.