In James Napier Robertson's The Dark Horse, down-and-out former chess champ Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis) finds a measure of salvation for himself, his nephew, and an endearingly scrappy group of at-risk kids by teaching the young ones how to play chess. That may sound either like a film you've seen too many times already or like a formula for easy uplift. But it's neither, thanks to powerful performances and a realistic depiction of the dangers and challenges that face Genesis, a bipolar Maori man who was raised by his older brother and spent much of his life either homeless or in a mental institution.
The Dark Horse doesn't lecture its audience about the debilitating effects of poverty and racism. Instead, it makes them manifest. You see the damage done in the intimidating scowls and propensity for apparently unfeeling violence of Genesis's brother, Ariki (Wayne Hapi), and the other members of his gang, as well as in Ariki's dark little cave of a barely furnished house, with its water-stained walls and cramped backyard.
But if the dominant culture has beaten down most of the Maoris in the film, their families and self-esteem shredded and their options hopelessly narrowed, Maori tradition and values may represent a way out. Genesis's fascination with Maori tales, particularly the story of how the trickster Māui created the island of New Zealand, feeds the optimism he nurtures, having been told by his doctors that focusing on something positive is key to maintaining his mental health. He also uses Maori concepts to teach the children chess, sometimes talking of it as a war game and of the pieces as Maori warriors, sometimes using the Maori concept of the importance of extended family to explain why his players must think of all their pieces as one united front and use them to protect one another.
Despite the occasional cliché, this film mostly feels as messy as life, and as movingly complicated.
The real-life Genesis was reportedly brilliant but childlike, charismatic but mentally unstable. Curtis constructs an uncanny impersonation of the man, starting with the nearly 70 pounds he gained to mimic Genesis's bear-like potbelly and the rocking walk and sometimes labored breathing of a very heavy man. But while Ariki and the other gang members use their size to intimidate, Genesis never seems dangerous—except to himself, when he accelerates into a manic spiral. Even then, Curtis keeps his eyes soft and his smile guileless, exuding a loving innocence that seems doomed to make Genesis too vulnerable to survive in the unforgiving world he was born into. Unless, that is, it can give him enough strength to transcend it.
In a welcome departure from most films about kids who're revving up for a climactic contest, the chess club's preparation for a tournament and the match itself are telescoped into just a few short scenes and montages. The personalities and problems of individual club members are left largely unexplored as well. Instead, the film homes in on the traps Genesis is trying to work free of and on his struggle to help his nephew, Mana (James Rolleston), escape the gang, which Ariki insists he must join. (As Mana, James delivers a coiled portrayal of a sensitive young main posing as tough, fulfilling the promise he showed as the title character in Boy.)
D.P. Denson Baker likes to use very shallow depth of field to keep our eyes on Genesis. That technique is particularly effective in the climactic scene in which Genesis comes to rescue Mana from Ariki's house and several members of the gang follow uncle and nephew outside. The camera stays on Genesis and Mana while the threat in the background plays out in soft focus, making the danger palpable while foregrounding Genesis and the positive attitude he manages to maintain, in stubborn defiance of the odds.
Now and then something in The Dark Horse feels a bit over-determined, like when the chess tournament turns out to be on the same day as Mana's planned initiation into the gang, or when Genesis issues directions for chess that sound like a Hallmark bromide about life as a whole, fretting: “Don't leave anyone behind. You need everyone.” But despite the occasional cliché, this film mostly feels as messy as life, and as movingly complicated.