There is much to be admired in this nugget from New Zealand, celebrating filial bonding in all its painful dimensions, the good bad and the ugly. This is not a film too endeared to explanations. And there lies the problem. The story of three cousins spread over three generations is told with condensed brusqueness without any stopovers for explanations, so signposts for us to follow.
Nobody is going to tell you who’s who here. You have to figure it out on your own. A tough job considering how habituated we are to spoonfeeding. By the time I could place the characters the co-directors were done with their job.
And what a fine job they’ve done! In bringing together the lives of three Maori women who steeped in the pride of their cultural uniqueness, happen to be cousins the co-directors Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith waste no time in preambles. We are plunged into their lives during their hectic childhood.
One of the cousins Mata is sent to an orphanage where she learns, the hard way, that kindness is won at a very heavy price. There are three actresses playing Mata, all so well co-ordinated they look like three generations of different women from the same family. The other two cousins are also played to immense effect by three sets of actresses who bear an uncanny physical and emotional resemblance to one another. (In The Empire Kunal Kapoor and his childhood avatar look nothing like each other).
Very often I found myself wondering who’s who. Is that Missy or Makerata over there? The plot is not transfixed by its own excellence nor are the co-directors dazzled by the array of outstanding performances, young, teenaged and old. What Cousins says about lives that are bonded by blood and emotions, is so universal, it transcends the immediate context to submerge us in a narrative that speaks of emotional peaks and doesn’t shy away from the dark and ugly side of human relationships.
While all the three protagonists are memorably imagined and portrayed, to me, this is Mata’s story, wrenched out of her family cocoon, thrown into an orphanage, adopted by an alcoholic abusive woman she ends up on the streets, homeless aimless. Cousins is a preponderant treatise on ties that bring families together over generations of turbulent events.
The one big blemish in the storytelling is that it doesn’t give the audience a chance to get to know the three characters and their environment. I don’t think the architects of this Maori tragedy are bothered with whether we recognize the characters or not. To them, it’s enough to recognize one another before it’s too late.
Image source: IMDb