Movie Review: Her Brother, lack of a Driver’s License and Down Syndrome Can’t Stop “Poppy”

“Poppy” is a cute Kiwi comedy about a teen with Down Syndrome who refuses to let it slow her roll or limit her life.

Poppy wants to learn to drive. Poppy wants to be able to drift when she drives. Poppy wants an official mechanic’s apprenticeship so her big brother will have to pay her a full salary at the small town New Zealand family garage they inherited. And Poppy wants a boyfriend. Poppy has um, plans for that boyfriend.

In the movie, big brother Dave seems like a bigger barrier than Down Syndrome to Poppy realizing her goals. Let’s all “BOO” Dave (Ari Boyland) when he tries to quash Poppy’s teen driving dreams, when he goes after the boy whom she has her eye on, when he tells her “No!”

As her limitations seem on the lower end of the range of Down disability, the film has a hint of idealized wish fulfillment fantasy about it. It can be cloying. As adorable as Poppy can be, given an impish, determined charm by Libby Hunsdale, our heroine is not the viewer’s surrogate here.

That would be Dave. We share his skepticism. Dave’s prejudices — literally his “pre-judging” what his maturing if still childish, mentally-challenged 19 year-old sister is capable of — are our prejudices.

It’s all down to Poppy to change his and our minds.

That’s not as easy as the film seems to think it is.

Everybody here — this was filmed in Kāpiti District, on New Zealand’s North Island — knows Poppy and indulges her. Everybody has a hard time saying “No” to her.

When she meets Sophia (Kali Kopae) at the NZ version of the DMV, she’s got a new friend and confederate in getting her driver’s permit. But without brother Dave’s instruction and willingness to let her drive his car, that could be stymied.

She and former high school classmate Luke (Seb Hunter) get reacquainted when Luke has a mishap with his car and she’s in the tow-truck with Dave when they go to fetch it.

Luke’s just been dumped by his mean-girl girlfriend. Luke can’t afford to pay to get his car fixed. Poppy sees her opportunity. Or opportunities.

Luke can give her driving lessons on the side in return for her work on the things she knows how to fix on the car. She’ll just “borrow” customer’s cars from the Simpsons & Son Garage, the family business, for the driving lessons.

And Luke is on the rebound. Maybe he’ll be susceptible to her persuasion in other matters as well. To that end, Dave catches her visiting the gynecologist — another “ally” — to see about a birth control shot.

Dave is…concerned.

Like Dave, one is tempted to take all this in with folded arms and skepticism. If we identify with Dave, we’ve got to see sister this kid as the unspoken burden he will never admit to carrying, and someone so determined to get her own way she gets on his nerves, and ours.

Poppy’s headstrong, and not just about the desire for sex and joyriding with customer’s cars at the garage. As the few local teens actually mean enough to call her “slow,” and even spray paint that on Luke’s parents’ garage door, point out, it’s not like people aren’t raising an eyebrow about this odd couple and the nature of the “attraction.”

Is he using her to get his car fixed, sexual favors included? Even his mother has to ask. Or diminished capacity or not, is Poppy using Luke, an aspiring singer-songwriter who would seem to have other options?

There’s no sugar-coating how hard a sell the romance is here, even as every obstacle that Poppy faces seems designed to be overcome in time for a happy ending, Down Syndrome be damned.

But the quaint setting, novelty of a story that forces us to rethink just what someone with Down Syndrome might be capable of, and Kiwi car-drifting subculture almost make this sweet-spirited, naive but edgier-than-you-think comedy come off.

Rating: unrated, adult situations, alcohol abuse

Cast: Libby Hunsdale, Ari Boyland, Seb Hunter and Kali Kopae.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Linda Niccol. An IndiePix release.

Running time: 1:28


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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