By Tony Schwab, Staff Writer
“The Dark Horse,” a film by New Zealander James Napier Robertson, has a narrative that at first glance seems destined to manipulate. Telling the story of Genesis Potini, a brilliant chess player who suffered from mental illness before teaching the game to children in a poor aboriginal community, it could easily have been a cheaply inspirational tale a la Richard LaGravenese’s “Freedom Writers.” But Robertson commits to an honest, unflinching style that brings across the success of Potini’s work even as it keeps it in perspective.
The story begins with Potini (Cliff Curtis) being hospitalized after the latest in a series of mental breakdowns, eventually taken out of the hospital by gang member and longtime friend Ariki (Wayne Hapi). Potini moves in with Ariki, but the two clash when Potini witnesses Mana’s abuse of his son. He leaves the home to live on the streets, and goes to another friend, who lets him help out at his chess club. From here, the movie tracks both the development of the chess team as it prepares for a tournament and clashes between Potini and the gang members who threaten the lives of several of his pupils.
The gang plot is handled especially well, so much so that the movie at times resembles the HBO series “The Wire.” The viciousness of the gangs, including child abuse, is not glossed over. They use crude ideas of traditional masculinity and loyalty to justify their horrible behavior, and rarely show any remorse. Yet the movie shows how little opportunity these men have ever had for a better life. Their neighborhood is completely broken down, with the ugliness of its buildings shown well by Robertson’s direction. There is a sense that these gangs are inevitable given the circumstances.
The uplifting chess plot, when contrasted with the gang violence, feels earned. The idea of the game providing an escape for these kids is particularly poignant. When the team travels to compete against affluent white players, the differences between the teams are made clear but not exploited for cheap, obvious jokes. Sadly, the actual chess play in the film is unimpressive. The kids seems to become very good unbelievably fast, and the only teaching we are actually shown is a handful of diagrams and basic strategy tips. The intellectual discipline and abstract thinking needed for excellent chess are fascinating, but sadly neglected.
Cliff Curtis is brilliant as Genesis. He has a great feeling for the fear that can take hold of someone with mental illness. He seems like he can loose his grip at any moment, and he always has this to worry him. His performance has fewer acting scenes than most American films, allowing for the supporting cast to have equal importance. In this, and in many other respects, “The Dark Horse” offers a model to American films in how to handle both poverty and mental illness.
“The Dark Horse” was released April 1.