Movie Review: The Dark Horse (2014)

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Rating: B-/ I know I’m in the minority in finding this feel-good Kiwi drama a little over-rated; it’s perfectly charming and watchable, yes, but also perfectly formulaic. It’s the kind of movie you can watch and go “Yeah, I enjoyed that,” but it’s predictability makes it hard for it to make much of a lasting impression on you. That said, the actors here are a standout. There’s clearly so much underrated dramatic talent on display here, and they successfully maneuver The Dark Horse through it’s moments where it is just ‘blah’ at best, frustratingly cliche and pat at worst.

Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis) is a quiet guy with Bipolar Disorder who just got out of a residential treatment center after a psychological breakdown. Instead of being moved to an environment where he will be calm and cared for, Genesis is shuffled off to live with his gang banger thug brother (Wayne Hoppi) and his reluctant gangster-in-the-making nephew (James Rolleston, who I totally didn’t realize was the Michael Jackson-loving kid from the Taika Waititi film, Boy.) Genesis is supposed to keep his stress down, but how can he when the house is occupied by his gangsta brother, his brother’s gangsta kid, and a bunch of random hood friends at all hours of the day?

Genesis gets a new lease on life when he volunteers at a local chess club for underprivileged youth. Genesis is a bit of a chess prodigy, but the leader of the group doesn’t want him to get the kid’s hopes up, stir up their dreams, and than let them down by ending up in the crazy house again. The nephew, Mana, decides he wants to escape the gang life and starts coming to meeting too, and Genesis proves he can be an inspirational teacher and mentor. However, when Genesis’ brother catches wind of his plan to give Mana an alternative to gang life and Genesis’ own mental health begins to deteriorate, a big upcoming chess competition only manages to complicate things.

If you’ve seen this kind of movie before, you probably already know what it entails. Some sadness, some humor, and a overall inspirational vibe, with a ragtag team of misfits (in this case, underprivileged Maori chess enthusiasts) going for broke on a big, all-important competition that will make them or break them. Yet, predictable as it is, it is a good movie, in terms of acting, writing, directing, etc. The only thing it doesn’t manage to be is original.

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I don’t think I’ve seen Cliff Curtis in anything before, but he really embodies the character; a really kind, soft-spoken man who just wants to live a normal life. The supporting cast is made up of mostly unknown, Maori performers, but they all do an excellent job, including Wayne Hoppi as Ariki, Genesis’ troubled brother. Hoppi was a real life ex-gang member with authentic tattoos who came out of no where to play in this movie, and his anger and his vulnerability feel genuine. I only wish that more big hotshot Hollywood actors could convince us of their authenticity as well as these small name, overlooked up-and-comers.

I don’t think this is a movie you won’t be able to stop thinking about, if you, like me, have become jaded to these inspirational, based on a true story type films. The Dark Horse hits all the predictable notes, but due to it’s wonderful cast still manages to be an entertaining and touching film. The characters are sympathetic, if a bit underwritten, and the conclusion is satisfying. The movie gets points for avoiding cartoon caricature with it’s depiction of mental illness and gang life.

It makes you really appreciate people with mental illness who can’t afford to go to an expensive treatment center and live out their days at home in relative peace and tranquility, but are thrown right back into the fray. Instead of escaping from life, life comes up and smacks them right in the  face, and they have to make a sudden decision; pull themselves out of the tide or drown. I had the good luck to come back to a safe household where I had lots of time to get my crap together after a mental hospital stay, but what about the others, the ones that are released into dysfunction and poverty?

Cliff Curtis successfully portrays one of those unfortunate souls, who manages to come out on top in a charming, if somewhat trite and predictable fashion. The Dark Horse is a crowd-pleaser, and that’s both a good and a bad thing. Good because who doesn’t like a movie that makes you feel good?- and bad because you can’t help feeling there is farther they could have gone with this story.

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