No movie I’ve seen this year has hit me harder than “Cousins.” This heartfelt, emotionally wrenching story set among New Zealand’s indigenous Maori is poetry on screen, a compact saga of one extended family’s history and the lost cousin that those who knew her never give up looking for.
Movingly-adapted from a novel by one of New Zealand’s most celebrated writers, Patricia Grace, it follows Mata, a child orphaned by the state, abandoned by her callous British father. But even as she’s shoved into a home for “Desolate Children,” indoctrinated with the Bible, denied her own culture and language and kept from her family, they’re looking for her.
The secret to the film’s power is the number of times the tale lets us hope that she’s “rescued” and “brought home,” only to have that snatched away by a racist system and the racists who benefit from it.
In the fictive present, Mata (Tanea Heke) is old and homeless in Wellington, lost in her thoughts, adrift on a stream-of-conscious that takes her through her earliest memories, her first reconnections with her family and the cruel hand life dealt her. She grew up exploited, neglected and unschooled about family, social interactions, love and sex. She grew up without her family’s loving embrace.
Prim Mrs. Parkinson (Sylvia Rands) becomes her legal guardian when her mother dies, the one who drops little Mata (Te Ao Marama Baker) at the Mercy Home and who later takes her back in as a virtual indentured servant.
Her family doesn’t find her for years, but Aunt Gloria (Cian Elyse White) and others track her down and get her “home” for the holidays, with cousin Missy (Keyahne Patrick Williams) in charge of introducing her around and getting the older relatives to speak English around her.
And slightly older cousin Makareta (Shannon Williams), the self-described “spoiled one,” recognizes the injustice going on and vows, “We’re going to get you back, Mata. I promise.”
Decades later, Makareta (co-screenwriter Briar Grace Smith) has become a lawyer, trying to help the family hang onto ancestral lands, still looking at old family photos and wondering, “Where are you, Cousin?”
Co-directors Ainsely Gardiner (he produced “Eagle vs. Shark”) and Briar Grace Smith (she wrote “The Strength of Water”) seamlessly blend the various streams of the past with the film’s present. Mata’s school years, where she absorbed a contempt for her “ugly” people who “worship false gods and drink beer,” her late teens when when entered the workforce (to the benefit of her “guardian”) on to the first young man to turn her head.
Makareta, groomed to be a “great leader” by her ambitious mother, endures her own trials. And Missy (Hariata Moriarty, and later Rachel House) grows up to be exactly what we saw in her as a child, the glue that holds the family together, come hell or high water. The stream of actresses, young, youngest and old, who tell this tale are well-cast and sympathetically directed.
It’s a melancholy script decorated with poignant grace notes — that rebel schoolmate who sticks up for Mata when she’s bullied, the glimmer of connection when a Maori groundskeeper recognizes her “people,” the sisterhood of hatmakers who embrace her and slowly socialize her in her first job, an “arranged” wedding, a sad funeral.
What Smith and Gardiner have adapted is a rare and precious thing, a movie whose narrative momentum is carried by the simplest of longings — hope.
“Cousins” moves us to tears by the mythic promise of their grandmother, one we trust that no matter how dark, how often hope is dashed, will be fulfilled.
“The land, her ancestors, will bring her home.”
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, adult situations, profanity
Tanea Heke, Te Raukura Gray, Te Ao Marama Baker, Ana Scotney, Rachel House, Briar Grace Smith, Miriama Smith, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Keyahne Patrick Williams, Shannon Williams, Hariata Moriarty, and Sylvia Rands
Credits: Directed by Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace Smith, scripted by Briar Grace Smith, based on a novel by Patricia Grace. Coming to Netflix July 22.
Running time: 1:38