New Zealand is on a bit of a roll this year filmwise. What we Do in the Shadows (2014) was a fair comedy hit and Housebound (2014) has been hugely and rightfully popular wherever it has played. That latter film is one of at least three kiwi films on the CIFF program for 2014, another being the mild dramedy (well the comedy is pretty mild) Fantail (2013).
The film focuses on Tania and her younger brother Pi. Tania works the night shift at a local petrol station, to attempt to help fund their dream trip to Australia in an attempt to reconnect with their father. They also tend to their ailing mother who has severe diabetes and kidney issues. Relationships of Tina’s with her caring boss Rog and District Manager Dean, who makes plain his feelings for her very early on, are also focused on and evolve throughout the film. Often however Fantail just seems not to know what it is going to be – drama, comedy, thriller, romance. In the end it is a sort of combination of all of them, and also none of them. It feels like a flat experience, and despite some moments of tension during the night-shifts, there is no great drama.
Undoubtedly the star of Fantail is Sophie Henderson as Tania. The entire film circles around the quiet stoicism and occasional charm of her character. You can sense the weariness of the character but also her determination not to give into that weariness. Likewise Henderson portrays the complicated interpersonal interactions that Tania has with people really well, guarded at times yet also wanting to connect and establish relationships of one form or another. The other performances are solid. Stephen Lovatt is likeable as Rog and Jarod Rawiri as regional manager Dean proves to be a pretty adept comedic performer.
Much of the film though is lacking in thematic focus. The theme of racial identity is under-explored, but when it is looked at, it provides for the most successful moments of the film. Light skinned Tania’s commitment to her Maori identity stands in stark contrast to the darker-skinned Dean’s suppression of his. These are interesting ideas in a society such as New Zealand’s and are issues that are also highly relevant to an Australian audience. It is a shame then that for whatever reason the film does not spend much time examining them. Lack of attention paid to various aspects of the film is a recurring issue actually. There is a mild love story between Tania and Dean that does not get the pay-off it should. Most tellingly of all though is the subplot of Pi when he goes away to work. We see snippets of his growing drug habit and petty crime, but little of the reasons behind it and the scale of the issue. Unfortunately these elements were required to be fleshed out more for the conclusion to the film to totally work in a satisfying manner. As it stands though, it just feels forced.
Verdict: There is some good stuff in Fantail. The occasional laughs are nice, the themes of identity explored are engaging (though they are definitely underexplored) and the central performance is thoughtful and heartfelt. It’s a shame then that so much of it feels too forced, resulting in a flat finale and a general feeling that the film is going the wrong way in the latter half. Schooner of Carlton Draught