When a mysterious stranger arrives in their isolated coastal town, 10-year-old twins, Kimi and Melody are forced apart. Kimi must find the strength to let go of what he loves the most.
In The Strength of Water, the debut feature from New Zealand filmmaker Armagan Ballantyne, the Hokianga coast of her homeland is the dominant presence: the sky is a roiling, agitated, steely rain comes in sudden downpours, and the sea is a treacherous, opaque aqua tone. It looks like a land where you don’t prosper, you merely survive, and this assured movie is concerned with the moments of emotional respite that the few inhabitants of the region can find for each other.
As with Niki Caro’s celebrated Whale Rider, the story primarily takes a child’s eye view of the world. Living on a ramshackle chicken farm with their parents and various siblings, 10-year-old twins Kimi (Hato Paparoa) and Melody (Melanie Mayall-Nahi) are practical dreamers – they deliver eggs with a handcart, crossing the landscape with ease, but imagine a world of magic nestling around them. When they hear noises in an abandoned house they decide to confront the ghost, only to find Tai (Isaac Barber), an itinerant young man who has come to the district to see the house his grandfather lived and died in.
Working from a script by playwright Briar Grace-Smith, Ballantyne is more interested in examining the Maori community’s everyday lives, and how they sit in relation to their traditions, than in making political observations. The key notes here are universal, most notably the half-life of grief.
If the arrival of Tai is the expected fluctuation to the locals’ uneasy station in life, it’s played out with unexpected force. A seemingly casual confluence of events – a dog off its chain, a junkyard, a missing asthma inhaler – combine for a tragic loss of life, leaving one of the twins to mourn the other.
The canine belonged to the twins’ older brother, Gene (Shyane Biddle), but he blames Tai, invoking the belief that his grandfather’s house is cursed. The newcomer has the hunched shoulders and rolling gait of someone who spent his life walking away without looking back, but he lingers in town, striking up a bond with Tirea (Pare Paseka), a melancholic young woman who works in the local takeaway shop and ponders the life of the parents who abandoned her as a young girl.
The attraction of the bruised to the battered is natural, but as well as it is done, with halting exchanges and bodies that have no accommodating shape even when embraced by others, it plays out as too carefully conceived. Moments of grief and anger are impeccably played, but they’re like notes from a score that’s been written and rewritten until the melodies are as familiar as they’re reassuringly moving.
The one unexpected note, adding a colloquial take on magic realism, is the residence of one twin alongside the other. 'I’m made out of skin and bits of hair. There’s nothing inside," they puzzle, appearing to their eternally linked sibling but no-one else. This innocent, existential quandary gently reflects a landscape where the elements waste everything away. The hollow spectral afterlife is no different to what many of the characters are experiencing while alive, and the film steadily moves towards giving them a finale where there is the possibility of just a little more.