Bellbird is a heartfelt dramedy that tracks the struggle of a taciturn New Zealand farmer and his son to come to terms with a bereavement. Warm, funny and poignant – and quintessentially Kiwi.
Like the unique Icelandic movie Rams, (2015-16 Perth Film Festival), Bellbird is one of those special small-budget slice-of-life indie treats that gives you a fascinating glimpse into an exotic culture you’re not likely to encounter any other way. Both films belong to a small sub-genre I term “terroir” films – that is, they are products arising out of a unique regional milieu.
As in Rams, in keeping with the pace of life in the rustic, visually gorgeous dairy country of Northland in which it is set, Bellbird is slow-moving, but absorbing from the first frame to the last.
The lead characters that feature here – Ross (Marshall Napier), who has known nothing but life on the ancestral farm, and his son Bruce (Cohen Holloway) – are not quite like any you’ve come across before. Both are blokes of few words. Both are ill-equipped to deal with the sudden death of their wife and mother, Beth (Annie Whittle). Originally a city dweller, articulate and sociable, she is a loss to the local community, and particularly to the choir she founded and led. She exits early in the film, but her presence looms large throughout.
She is there in the silence of Ross’s lonely solitary nights sitting in his living room in a state of stunned ennui. She is there in the actions of Bruce, who stays over in a spare room in the days following her death. This is his way of supporting his obviously lost father, and perhaps of comforting himself, although barely a word is exchanged between them.
The days are full of routine chores and easier to cope with. Bruce works alongside his father learning the ropes on the farm, which it is assumed he will take over, even though it’s not work to which he is suited. He’d rather stay at his current job, sorting through the local tip for items he can restore and sell or turn into artworks. An added attraction of his tip job is his boss, Connie (Rachel House), a worldly, straight-talking Maori woman as feisty and outspoken as he is meek and reticent. It’s an unlikely match, but Northland is a long way from Hollywood. And hallelujah for that!
While Bruce doesn’t have the words to address his job conflict with his father, cheeky local Maori kid Marley (the funny and irresistibly endearing Kahukura Retimana, who all but steals the show) is never short of something to say, convincing a reluctant Ross to let him help out on the farm after school. While Marley is crazy about farming, you sense his parents have encouraged him in his spare-time roustabout aspirations – this is one of several instances of the community quietly and unobtrusively reaching out to the withdrawn and stubbornly solitary Ross.
Bellbird is a fine feature debut from writer/director Hamish Bennett. Slow-moving slice-of-life films like this can become tedious, but Bennett’s writing and characterisation is exceptionally well managed. He was brought up in Northland and his intimate knowledge of the region and its occupants is key to his success here. He has invested the film with heart and humanity, and his characters with the stuff of real life. The excellent cast responds with relish; the characters ring true, for all their quirkiness. We care about them.
Odds are Bellbird will not make it to cinemas outside the festival circuit. You have a week to see it at Somerville, starting on 10 February. Highly recommend you schedule it in. It’s a joy.
Movie Website: https://www.facebook.com/bellbirdfilm/
Bellbird screening dates (2019-20 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival):
Somerville: 10-16 Feb 2020, 8pm
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