83 Mins(3 ½ out of 5)
Reviewed by: Sam Hollis
Like many great films, the quietest moments in Cousins often ring the loudest. A story entrenched in Māori heritage, a few forced lines and predictable plot points barely detract from the near-spiritual realm it takes us to, or the significance of its creation.
Cousins was adapted from Patricia Grace’s novel of the same name, following three separated cousins throughout their youth, adulthood, and later years. Mata, who now wanders Cuba Street seemingly aimless, was adopted by a European family when her mother died and made to feel ashamed of her Māori roots. She reminisces over the short time she spent with her true whānau while cousins Missy and Makareta long for her return.
Directors Briar Grace-Smith and Ainsley Gardiner keep a firm hand on the source material and bask in the story’s inherent power. For a film that doesn’t even reach the hour-and-a-half mark to define three characters at three different points in their lives is an achievement in itself. Defining the world they inhabit in visceral detail adds the necessary colour and mystique, and director of photography Raymond Edwards deserves praise for creating an atmosphere that makes the character’s whenua (family land) appear like a rural fantasy.
The co-directors wisely centralise Mata, doing well to familiarise us with the cousins considering they are each played by three different actors in a non-linear tale. Although, with some mixed results. Sharp changes in behaviour sometimes make me lose sight of the progression of these women, though Tanea Heke (Older Mata), Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne (Adult Makareta), and Rachel House (Older Missy) deliver standout performances, plus Ana Scotney is absolutely transfixing as Adult Mata. Somehow, editor Alex Boyd manages to weave their stories with ease, they just contain too few surprises.
Grace-Smith and Gardiner linger on poignant moments, capturing traditional cultural practices like the hongi and tā moko in intimate ways. As a Kiwi, these small moments resonate, even if the dialogue around them feels unnatural at times. Cousins will transcend you to another world, albeit a familiar one.