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Once Were Warriors is an emotional drama about the struggles of inner city native New Zealanders. The film paints a dynamic picture of fringe happiness within the community that could expire at any time.
The film centers around the Heke family, a lot that have been torn apart from excessive partying, drinking and domestic abuse. The father, Jake, comes from a line of slaves and poverty stricken families. He is ashamed of his heritage and drinks to conceal his temper that can turn on a dime. His wife, Beth, is from a wealthy lineage and is quite proud of her family history. Though it appears that these two could forge a cinematic dream, Jake’s uncontrollable temper can put an end to even the best of days for the family. There are five children: Nig, a gangbanging teenager, Grace, a teenage girl that functions as a second mother to the children, Boogie, a troubled adolescent, and two younger children that are fairly irrelevant to the story.
More than anything, this film illustrates the destructive effects of poverty and the current state of many native New Zealanders. While the film does focus specifically on the Heke family, its events concern the entire community. There are several scenes which depict alcoholism and gang activity as a form of escapism for these individuals, which reinforces the message regarding poverty stricken areas.
While exemplifying the effects of poverty, the film also functions as a tale of transcendence. This is to say that even though life may, on occasion, appear bleak and dead, this is but a matter of perspective, to some degree.
The acting in this film is nothing short of amazing; it is in no way a stretch to say that few films in recent era are comparable in regards to casting and such. Unfortunately, being a New Zealand film, it has not received the appropriate amount of attention from North American and European audiences.
Once Were Warriors has a bit of a unique feel to it. Director Lee Tamahori congested many shots with numerous characters, especially the house party and bar scenes. Each character, no matter how insignificant, seems dynamic in some way, which gives the audience a feeling of belonging to this community. The manner in which many of the frames were placed invites in the audience both physically and emotionally, reminiscent of a Tarantino style. This is, perhaps, the attribute that allows it to be emotionally moving.
This film is a tale of overbearing depression punctuated by moments of seeming happiness. It is not a strongly uplifting film, but it does depict a realistic vision of impoverished areas.