By Richard Ades
The title of the New Zealand film The Justice of Bunny King may be its most optimistic element.
Its homeless heroine is waging an uphill battle to regain custody of the two children who were taken from her due to her criminal record. And though she’s sly and resourceful, she’s pitted against an entrenched bureaucracy that refuses to see the reality of her situation.
“Justice” appears to be an impossible goal. Yet the more unreachable it seems, the harder Bunny works to attain it, because that’s who she is.
Essie Davis (The Babadook) plays Bunny as someone who throws herself wholeheartedly into whatever she tries. In the beginning, we see her walking up and down lines of traffic with a squeegee and a broad smile as she cleans windshields in exchange for whatever coins drivers toss her. Later, she retires to the home where she cooks and babysits for her sister (Toni Potter) in return for a place to sleep.
All this she does cheerfully, but there’s a hole in her psyche the size of her physically challenged daughter (Amelie Barnes) and teenage son (Angus Stevens). She’s determined to regain custody but knows that will happen only if she can find a suitable home, something that’s likely beyond her income level.
Then, just as a solution appears to be at hand, she stumbles into the terrifying realization that her teenage niece Tonyah (Jojo Rabbit’s Thomasin McKenzie) is being abused by her sister’s partner (Errol Shand). She tries to fix the situation but only succeeds in making her own life harder. And, thanks to combination of bad luck and bad choices, things just keep getting worse.
Directed by Gaysorn Thavat from a story she co-conceived with Gregory David King and screenwriter Sophie Henderson, this could be seen as a cautionary tale of the steep odds faced by those on the lower rungs of society’s ladder. First of all, though, it’s a character study of a woman whose instincts sometimes get her in trouble but whose courage and determination are beyond reproach.
Davis’s all-in portrayal keeps us engaged whether Bunny’s antics are amusing us or tying our stomachs in knots. McKenzie and the rest of the cast offer strong support, as does Ginny Loane’s naturalistic cinematography.
The Justice of Bunny King doesn’t go where you expect—or want—it to go, but Davis makes the trip memorable.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
The Justice of Bunny King opened Sept. 23 in select theaters and will be available on demand beginning Sept. 30.