Essie Davis and Thomasin McKenzie star in this moving and funny social realist drama from debut feature director Gaysorn Thavat. Davis plays Bunny King, a woman who has fallen on difficult times. She is living with her sister and her family, and her two kids are currently in care. She can’t get them back until she has a place of her own, but she can’t get a place without a job, and she can’t get a job or a reference because of a criminal record. So she is effectively stuck in the classic cycle of social services bullshit, which doesn’t give you a chance to escape. Her only current source of income is from washing car windscreens at busy junctions.
Bunny makes a deal with her brother-in-law to rent out his garage and turn it into a small flat. This will at the very least allow her to have her kids come and visit. All she wants is to be able to keep the promise she made to her daughter that she will see her on her birthday. But this momentary feeling of positivity that things might turn around for her is snatched away when life throws her yet another horrific curve ball. Driven out of the family home, and with her niece Tonyah (Thomasin McKenzie) in tow, Bunny once again finds herself at the mercy of the system.
‘The Justice of Bunny King’ paints a despairing picture of New Zealand’s social care system. The film pulls no punches in its depiction of Family Services, the welfare system, the desperate housing shortage, the systemic cycle of poverty and abuse in New Zealand’s inner cities, and the apathy of the uncaring middle classes. In the hands of a different director, this material—as important and worthy as it is—could have led to a grim and dreary polemic, but Thavat and Davis make it sing.
We already know what a great actress Davis is, and she is on sensational form here. Even though she is strung out and at her wits end, she is a force of positivity, full of humour and love. She faces unimaginable pain and ignominy in the course of the film, but never succumbs to it. Davis brings a raw emotional truth to Bunny, whether she is battling with family services, flirting with a real estate agent, or ferociously defending her niece. It is a powerhouse performance.
Likewise, Thomasin McKenzie continues to impress, with yet another sensitive and wholly believable performance. Her storyline is the darkest element of the film, and she brings a heartbreaking level of authenticity to her portrayal of Tonyah.
For the first two thirds, ‘The Justice of Bunny King’ could legitimately be considered as a companion piece to the terrific Matthew Newton film ‘Who We Are Now’, and also Ken Loach’s masterpiece ‘I, Daniel Blake.’ They share a lot of the same DNA, specifically the humanity and empathy shown towards their characters. But also in how they ruthlessly expose the cyclical cruelty of the legal and welfare systems in their respective countries.
However, despite there being a great deal to like about ‘The Justice of Bunny King’, it doesn’t quite pack the same emotional clout as either of those. It has a great set up, wonderful performances, and is about something really important, but a bizarre plot contrivance in the final act threatens to derail the entire thing. The film lurches from social realism to absurd melodrama, and all the good work and emotional truth that came before is undone.