NZIFF Review - The Dark Horse

From New Zealand's darker stories section comes the tale of Genesis Potini, a Gisborne man who inspired local youth through chess in a town riddled with drugs, gangs and potential dead ends.

Despite Potini's own issues with mental health (he was bi-polar all his life), he befriends Mana (Boy star James Rolleston) the young son of his brother and gang leader Ariki (played with true life grit by first time actor Wayne Hapi)

However, Ariki is determined that Mana will be inducted into the local gang for reasons which seem nefarious at the start but which are heartbreakingly and understandably revealed later on.

At the same time as Mana's undergoing the long dark night of his soul ahead of his patching, Potini's trying to inspire the youth, but with one eye always on the bigger picture, as well as battling his own mental health issues

It's here that the much needed light is shone through the inevitably dark New Zealand tale, which brims with bleakness in parts that it threatens to bleed over into the dread of the watching audience. It's a welcome and much-needed touch, given that parts of Napier Robertson's powerful drama simmer and ache with tragedy lurking ever around the corner.

The Dark Horse is Curtis' film through and through - and he masterfully rises to the occasion (even if Potini's back story is left woefully under-explained aside from 2 brief flashbacks) giving his character the vulnerable nuance he needs as he walks the street, muttering to himself, battling his own demons and trying to keep some of the younger kids inspired through his love of chess.

Equally, Rolleston shows a maturity that's likely to mark him out as a continually exciting proposition for the New Zealand acting scene. His Mana is underplayed, but nonetheless lacking in power as he tries to follow his heart and looks to avoid a life that he really doesn't want to be part of.

While others circle around the duo, it's undeniably their film and their relationship that rises above everything else going on around them. But it's Napier Robertson's final scenes which show The Dark Horse has a grim glimmer of hope as the denouement comes. While the flicker of hope given is a faint one, the power of the film and the central message is undeniable.