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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