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.
By Dan Slevin
Click here to read the review
A young crew of Auckland City-based "CYFs kids" have broken into your standard multi-level, brushed concrete, million-dollar Waiheke Island bach.
The kids, Tibs, Kenae and Jesse, just wanted somewhere to lay up for a while.
But the seldom-used holiday house the kids were hoping for turns out to be nothing of the sort, as a car turns into the driveway late on the first night and homeowner Jeremy (Colin Moy, In My Father's Den) walks straight into an unplanned and potentially very ugly ambush and hostage-taking.
Director Paolo Rotondo's debut feature is a minor miracle of shoestring film-making. Like the similarly budgeted Fantail (2014), Orphans and Kingdoms takes one well thought through and finely honed idea and works it into a thoroughly satisfying whole.
Although a few of the film's twists and turns are telegraphed a little too far in advance, this is still a story that doesn't always take the easy or expected way forward. Tibs, Kenae and Jesse might not be the one-dimensional wannabe gangsters that a Hollywood take on this plot would have made them, but neither are they simply good kids who just need a bit of understanding. Kenae (Calae Hignett-Morgan, The Dark Horse) especially is a character who defies typecasting, while Jesse (Jesse James Rehu Pickery) and Tibs (Hanelle Harris) both reach the credits with well-defined character arcs and not a single performance mis-step between them.
Orphans and Kingdoms unfolds as a brief, exhilarating and always watchable fable of 21st century New Zealand. This is the wealth gap as drama, in a sweet, tough and extraordinarily likeable film.
Rotondo has put together a talented cast, provided an intelligent script and then teamed up with a terrific local crew. Cinematographer Simon Raby especially has worked wonders here, turning in shot after shot that communicates everything we need to know, so that the economical dialogue can function purely as credible communication between the characters. There's an old saying that good film-making "shows without telling". Raby and Rotondo are there with bells on.
Hunt For The Wilderpeople is burning up the box-office at the moment, and quite right too. It is a hellaciously likeable and admirable film. But in Orphans and Kingdoms we have another New Zealand-made film on our screens that also deserves and will reward an audience.
Hunt it out and have a look. You'll be glad you did.
And one thing more (Spoiler Ahead). That RP16 rating for Orphans and Kingdoms is ludicrous. Every week in this job, I sit through M-rated American drivel that treats the violent deaths of scores of innocent people as just another special effect. But I would happily buy a 12-year-old a ticket to Orphans and Kingdoms. The only reason it's been saddled with that daft – and damaging – rating is because the film includes an intelligent and honest discussion around the topic of suicide. This is my plea to whoever sets the guidelines for these things: "not talking" about suicide clearly isn't helping. So when a film like Orphans and Kingdoms comes along, that treats the subject with honesty and compassion, please don't do anything to take it away from the people who might just need to see it the most. Cheers.
By Graeme Tuckett
April 14th 2016
Click here to read the review
Orphans & Kingdoms is a terribly impressive first feature film by a local director, which speaks volumes about the power of collaboration between talented, hard-working industry people and the inspiration of a damn good story.
Superficially, it's a plot in which three Maori siblings break into a flash Waiheke Island home, with the intention of living in luxury while they avoid an inevitable court order which would see them scattered to the far corners of the child welfare system. When the house's owner returns unexpectedly, tensions rise and trouble ensues.
But thanks to writer-director Paolo Rotondo's intelligent, compassionate take on the cliche, Orphans & Kingdoms addresses a topic that is a very current concern on New Zealand's political and social landscape, but is all too often brushed under the Statistics Carpet.
As the four characters knock up against each other's assumptions and prejudices, they learn lessons that every Kiwi ought to be learning about those who constitute our wider society, and not just our cosy "community".
The young thieves say karakia before they wolf down a much-needed meal; the privileged Pakeha has money but no happiness.
Aesthetically, Rotondo and his crew have crafted a beautiful film, exploiting the eye-popping production design inherent in the Waiheke wealth (which hammers home the disgraceful chasm between the Needs and the Don't Needs to great effect) through fabulous photography and an enchanting soundtrack.
The fast pacing and variety in the camerawork keeps this chamberpiece lively, relying on the strong central performances and a mostly bang-on script to deliver devastating revelations and credible reactions.
Special mention goes to young Calae Hignett-Morgan (who debuted in The Dark Horse) for inhabiting the vicious, wounded kid whose internal conflict goes furthest towards illuminating what's really at the heart of the issue.
With genuine pathos and stacks of heart, Orphans & Kingdoms holds a mirror up to the ills of our society (quite literally: Rotondo used incidents from actual news stories to piece together his narrative), and while some of these problems may not come as a surprise, the characters' handling of their lot is refreshingly illuminating.
Sarah Watt - Sunday Star Times - Stuff.co.nz
Set on Waiheke Island, three fugitive orphans – Tibs (Hanelle Harris), Kenae (Calae Hignett-Morgan) Jesse (Jesse-James Rehu Pickery) – are on the run from the mainland. Stealing from the supermarket and snatching bags is how it all begins before everything spirals out of control when the three stowaways decide to break into a wealthy Island holiday home. Everything seems to be working out as planned, or so they think.
However, trouble is brewing as the property owner, Jeremy (Colin Moy), unexpectedly returns home later that evening to find a teenage girl standing in the doorway in nothing but his dressing gown. The kids take control of what appears to be your typical hostage situation but as things unravel the tables are ever turning and it becomes evident that there is not only one victim but four, and they are all forced to face the demons of their past.
The multi-talented cast all excel, especially Calae Hignett-Morgan portraying pre-teen Kenae. This newcomer gives a cheeky yet mature performance that was a total crowd pleaser. As the only female protagonist, Hannelle Harris beautifully portrayed Tibs, a strong yet extremely vulnerable character, who is seen as the mother figure throughout. Jesse-James Rehu Pickery plays the thrill seeking older brother Jesse, who although he doesn’t have many lines he still manages to bring a fully formed character to life. The extremely talented Colin Moy brought power and selflessness to his performance, allowing the audience to really connect with his character and his grief.
Orphans & Kingdoms is a touching story that delves into lost relationships while unfolding themes of loss, pain and redemption. It’s a beautifully written script by New Zealand filmmaker Paolo Rotondo and produced by Fraser Brown. Rotondo introduced his film on the night as ‘the little film that could’ and when asked about the inspiration for the story he simply said ‘I stole it from the news stories that are told and then forgotten’.
It comes as no surprise to me that this powerful film has won numerous awards including ‘Best Feature Film’ at the Anchorage International Film Festival, a Silver Medal at the Global Music Awards and best editor at the NZ Film Awards.
Orphans & Kingdoms is a truly stunning piece of New Zealand filmmaking that really captures the raw reality of stories often ignored.
Three kids hitch a ride to Waiheke Island. Stowaways escaping the mainland, thieving crisps from the local supermarket and handbags from high-heeled, well-heeled locals. From a hilltop, they bicker about which glass-panelled holiday home to break into. The booze cabinet is soon raided, a poolside spliff lit. Isolated from the rest of society’s demands for order, these orphans, self-propelled wasters, can be happy for a moment.
Tibs (Hanelle Harris) is the oldest, the caregiver. Jesse (Jesse-James Rehu Pickery) is hedonism incarnate. Barely on the verge of adolescence is Kenae (Calae Hignett-Morgan, The Dark Horse), a bellicose child who swings at despondent businessman Jeremy (Colin Moy) with a hockey stick when he arrives home.
When Jeremy wakes, Orphans & Kingdoms descends into real darkness. There are broken ankles and broken heads, wrestling over weapons and a startling moment when Kenae, with furious conviction, holds a butcher’s blade to Jeremy’s heart.
Within the well-polished walls, a hostage situation unravels, the tables ever turning. With careful use of flash-backs, actor-turned-director Paolo Rotondo begins to unstitch the papered-over emotional wound that persuades Jeremy against revenge on these hapless freeloaders.
Taut and streamlined, Orphans hardly strays from its luxurious but blood-stained conﬁnes, the quivering camera pushing ever closer to the faces of actors who have hardly appeared on screen before. Harris is poised and compelling, but Hignett-Morgan steals every scene. His performance can swing between typically mouthy teenager and teary-eyed torturer within a few frames.
Rotondo doesn’t praise these kids’ actions, but nor does he condemn them.
“We’re wards of the state, ” Jesse mumbles. “We’re everyone’s kids.” He lets consequences speak for themselves. Despite а slightly low-key ﬁnal act that aims for а resigned kind of sorrow over intensity, Orphans is a ﬁnely told and ﬁne-looking debut feature that knows exactly when to restrain itself and when to explode.
By James Robins.
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