I watched these two indie films back to back. Both of them deal with a girl growing up with just about every kind of obstacle thrown in her way. One takes place on a planet far away in a not so distant future. The other takes place within the Māori community of New Zealand in the mid-20th century. Young Remmy in Settlers is played by Brooklynn Prince who made her splashy debut in The Florida Project four years ago as a kid running around looking for adventure and getting into trouble. She’s more serious this time around, but still pretty much doing the same thing, only on a desolate planet instead of backwater Orlando. Young Mata (Te Raukura Gray) in Cousins is not so lucky. She’s been ripped from her Māori family (including two female cousins) and adopted by a loveless white woman. Both girls weather adversity as they grow to adulthood, but both come out of it all battered but still standing.
Cousins is about three girls and the film follows them all, but the center is Mata. Sent by her white father to an orphanage as a young girl, she loses the connection to her family and culture. While at the orphanage she is allowed to visit her cousins, but when she’s adopted out to a white woman she is cut off and grows up without understanding what love and family are about. But her family does not forget her and search for her. One of her cousins flees the family home when she is about to be forced into an arranged marriage. She becomes a lawyer fighting for Māori rights. The other cousin stays behind and marries the man intended for her cousin in order to save their ancestral land. But throughout the film, there is a deep understanding of the enduring bonds of family and community. And when they finally find Mata, homeless on the streets and bring her home, it’s a beautiful circle.
Settlers is about a family living a spartan existence on a dusty planet whose lives are upended by the arrival of strangers intent on taking the place for themselves. Told in three parts it’s a tension-fill film told through the eyes of a nine-year-old girl as she grows up watching the adults in her life make a series of moral blunders. Can’t really say a lot about the plot without giving things away. But there are pigs and a robot and they are living under a big dome and there’s really nowhere to go to get away from anything. The strength of the film is the atmosphere, with good cinematography and music. Its weaknesses are its uneven dramatic structure, its lack of character development, and a WTF ending.
It’s always interesting to see films that take place over many years with different actors playing the same character at different points in a life. Cousins does it particularly well. The whole film is peopled with Māori actors, some professionals, some not, but all extremely good. Tanea Heke (Ngāpuhi Nui Tonuteiwi) who plays the older Mata is one of New Zealand’s most famous actors but Te Raukura Gray who plays her as a child is a newby who aces her first outing. Together they deliver the tragic character’s life in an achingly beautiful co-performance. Settlers on the other hand loses some of its magic when Remmy grows up. It’s not that the second actress (Nell Tiger Free) is bad, it’s just that Brooklynn Prince is so much more watchable.
Bottom line: Cousins is a beautiful film about family and love steeped in Māori culture. And I recommend it. Settlers feels more like the pilot for a sci-fi series that hasn’t quite found its groove yet.
Cousins begins streaming on Netflix July 22nd.
Settlers will be available to stream and in theaters July 23th.