Cousins explores Maori connections to family and country

Cousins, M, 98 minutes. Four stars.

Raw in story and rich in performance, the Kiwi film Cousins explores Maori connection to and disconnection from country.

For many years, a Kiwi film was a rare sighting in an Aussie cinema, though of late a handful of cheeky and heartfelt films with Marvel's Thor-tastic director Taika Waititi behind the camera have changed this.

And so some of the cast of Cousins might be very familiar to Aussie audiences, particularly the warm and winsome Rachel House who played Aunty Gracey in Boy and child welfare officer Paula in Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

House is one of a strong ensemble of Maori women playing three cousins in a chronologically complex telling of how family - Wanau in Maori - is inseparable.

It is based on one of Aeoteoroa literature's modern classics penned by author Patricia Grace and it took two directors to bring her vision to the screen.

Beginning in the 1940s, we meet cousins Makareta (Mihi Te Rauhi Daniels) and Missy (Keyahne Patrick-Williams) who enjoy an ideal life on their traditional land surrounded by aunties and uncles and grandparents. Meanwhile, in the city, their cousin Mata (played as a young girl by Te Raukura Grey) has been surrendered to an orphanage by her father where she is bullied by the white children and punished by the adults and teachers for displaying any trace of her Maori heritage.

A kind teacher arranges for Mata to spend a school holiday with her grandparents and so Mata is reunited with Makareta and Missy and despite a slow and frosty reunion, she gets a taste of the warm tendrils of family connection.

Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne plays the teenaged Makareta in Cousins. Picture: Vendetta Films

Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne plays the teenaged Makareta in Cousins. Picture: Vendetta Films

And so it becomes even more difficult for Mata (played by Ana Scotney as a teen) to be adopted by a Pakeha - white English - woman who wants to brush the natural kink out of Mata's hair, badge her with an Anglicised name and deny her access to her heritage. Meanwhile, for Mata's cousins their deep immersion in Maori life has its own burdens, with Makareta (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne) disappointing her family with her calling to study and Missy (Hariata Moriarty) drawn to a role as kaitiaki - guardian - of the family lands.

Years later, Missy (Rachel House) still fiercely protects the lands while lawyer Makareta (Briar Grace-Smith) spends all of her spare time searching for Mata (Tanea Heke), whose disconnection from land and family has broken her soul.

Those storylines don't play out in a linear fashion and screenwriter Briar Grace-Smith - also director and performer of the elder Makareta role, a very impressive hat trick - pulls threads from the Patricia Grace novel to weave her overlapping story.

This isn't just an onscreen story of family love - it is her late mother-in-law whose novel Grace-Smith adapts for the screen. She shares her director's chair with Ainsley Gardiner, a collaborator on earlier projects. Their camera focuses close on the faces of these women who are all well cast.

Particularly poignant is the performance from Tanea Heke. She is the current director at the Kiwi version of our National Institute of Dramatic Art, Toi Wakaari, with many of the younger cast drawn from the school's ranks.

The ensemble cast of powerful women, each giving an impactful performance unpacking those ever-expanding ripples of colonialism in post-war New Zealand, make for a thoughtful cinema experience.

This story Maori story is rich and thoughtful first appeared on The Canberra Times.