Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Dark Horse: Cliff Curtis Becomes Genesis Potini

If you want to know the latest developments in competitive chess or the sorry state of human rights in Russia, Garry Kasparov’s twitter feed is required reading. The witty and erudite Kasparov might be one of the few grandmasters you would actually want to have dinner with. Remember how creepy Bobby Fischer turned out? Genesis Potini struggled with even greater mental and emotional issues, but his heart was always in the right place. Potini finds the best way to stabilize his chemically unbalanced mind is by coaching a chess team of underprivileged youths in James Napier Robertson’s The Dark Horse (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

There is no mistaking the extreme nature of Potini’s bipolar condition. We first meet him in the midst of a full blown episode. It is only the sight of an antique chess set that somewhat calms (or at least slows) down Potini to some extent. The rather generous reception the store offers to the furiously muttering Potini quickly demonstrates Robertson’s restraint. Marginalized even within his ethnic Maori community, Potini’s social and economic realities are crystal clear from the onset. They need no heavy-handed incidents to underscore them.

Reluctantly, Potini’s brother Ariki, a high-ranking member of a biker-gang, takes the troubled former competitive chess player into his home. However, Potini is uncomfortable with the gang’s vice and aggression. He seeks a sense of belonging in a chess club sponsored by a former mate, initially unaware it serves at-risk kids. Yet, when Noble Keelan gives him a chance, Potini shows an aptitude for coaching, particularly when he relates the game to Maori legends. He even starts to reach his standoffish nephew Mana. Unfortunately, Ariki is dead set on initiating Mana into the gang on the very same day Potini’s team, the Eastern Knights, will compete in their first tournament.

You probably think you know where this film is headed and it is true Robertson is fiercely determined to inspire viewers, no matter how cynical they are. Nevertheless, Dark Horse is light years removed from simplistic television movie terrain, nor does Robertson ever opt to take the easy way out. There is no “cure” in sight for Potini, only more effective management techniques.

What really distinguishes Dark Horse is Cliff Curtis’s remarkable portrayal of Potini. Despite his frequent descents into mania, it is not a flashy performance. Curtis pulls us into his hulking frame (for which he reportedly packed on sixty pounds), rather than engaging in cheap tics. Curtis has a background in Mau Rakau martial arts and constantly seems to be jogging as the lead in Fear the Walking Dead, but as Potini, he looks like a walking PSA for diabetes and heart disease. Yet, there is something soulful about his screen-presence, even when he is quietly careening out of control.

Wayne Hapi has a similarly powerful physical bearing, but his work as Akiri might even be more complex and subtly modulated. His parenting choices will strike viewers as tragically wrong, yet we understand exactly why he makes them. The young supporting cast is also loaded with raw, natural talent, but James Rolleston and Niwa Whatuira are standouts for their charisma and intensity, as Mana and Keelan’s promising recruit Michael Manihera.

Robertson never tries to reinvent the wheel during Dark Horse, but he tells Potini’s story with incredible honesty and sensitivity. He also guides his ensemble (of radically differing experience levels) to some highly compelling performances. Recommended for those who appreciate a little inspiration without sentimentality or beautification, The Dark Horse opens this Friday (4/1) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.