Tania (Sophie Henderson) thinks she's Maori. Working the night shift at a petrol station, Tania has to put up with her clumsy boss (Stephen Lovatt) and the romantic intentions of her regional manager (Jarod Rawiri), while trying to save money to take her little brother Pi (Jahalis Ngamotu) to Surfers in search of their father. But when Pi falls in with the wrong crowd, things go awry.
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Peter Jackson may have created a cash cow for the New Zealand film industry (and tourism spin-offs) when he landed The Lord of the Rings saga, but on the whole, small countries have lots of small towns and small towns call for small stories. Fantail, a story about Tania, a pakeha (white) teenager who identifies as Maori, calls for a small budget but pays good dividends on its reliance on lead actress Sophie Henderson. Henderson conceived the script as a theatre monologue first before collaborating with her husband and debuting director, Curtis Vowell. Taking a wild guess, that there are some autobiographic elements, but Henderson is doing more than just imitating her Maori dialect.
Tania’s father has long gone missing; he’s believed to be residing in Surfers Paradise. She and her more obviously Maori brother, Pi aka Peter (Jahalis Ngamotu), have a plan to save their cash and travel to Queensland in order to find the dad that neither can truly remember. Tania has a night job at a 24-hour service station which is sometimes managed by the day manager/franchisee, Roger (Stephen Lovatt). From this basic small town scenario stems two narrative vines: one comic and one inevitably tragic.
The tragic is that her brother goes off to make quick money while fruit-picking (kiwi fruit, naturally) and falls in with a drugging and petty crime crowd. Peter phones home as he promised to do, but usually while he’s in the midst of a break-and-enter or at the wheel of a getaway car.
The film’s comic branch takes the form of Dean (Jarad Rawiri), the servo’s regional manager who has been sent by the franchise to re-train Roger and Tania. The antithesis of Tania the white girl with a Maori accent, Dean is completely divorced from his Maori roots. Dean is proud of things that he feels distances him from his heritage: speaking with what he calls “diction,” and a university degree in something that most have had a sub-major in Anthony Robbins. But Dean is not quite as slick as he pretends and quickly falls for Tania, who is amused, though not conned, by his “professional” act.
Henderson’s script is smartly observed and at times could be described as a NZ’ed Clerks, if it wasn’t for the fact that the tragic stem of the narrative keeps winding back into view. It’s a delicate balance, and though director Vowell uses too much wobblecam, he does an otherwise unobtrusive job of catching his star in action. The performance by Ngamotu as her brother is less successful, and Rawiri’s turn as Dean is light-weight, if entertaining. However, the gravitas of Lovatt as Roger also superbly contributes to keeping the film grounded (even as it hints at an unexplored plot strand).
The film suffers from multiple awkward transitions and talking of unexplored plot strands, and the whole issue of Pete and Tania’s mother—who in her one-shot appearance confusingly doesn’t look particularly Maori—creates more questions that it answers as it implies that she’s catatonic as well as diabetic. This sense of the mother’s absence is a key indicator that the script has not been fully fleshed out from its theatrical origins. Overall, despite its charms, the film feels like it is missing a vital part, like a car only running on three wheels. Likewise, the film’s title is an appendage from a cute embellishment rather than having anything to do than the film’s narrative thrust. It stems from a nostalgic reading of a Maori legend found in a story book but only serves to provide an ending that is out of character with almost everything that goes before and is a desperate attempt to protect the film’s commercial prospects from a particularly downbeat (but dramatically honest) ending.