If there was ever a film for film fans who celebrate indigenous voices across the world to watch and amplify, the new intergenerational narrative Cousins, out of New Zealand, is it. It is the 4th title of 2021 being brought to cinemas through Ava DuVernay’s indie film distribution and resource collective ARRAY, which does more than just say they are dedicated to celebrating people of color and women in film globally, they prove it substantively by their releases.
Visually beautiful, well-acted, and emotionally resonant, Cousins finds a way to feel sprawling and intimate at the same time, all within its tight 98 minutes. That such a deeply affecting story can be told so well should chiefly be credited to two things; the writing and the performances. Screenwriter Briar Grace Smith, who also co-directs and stars in the film, and her mother, award-winning writer Patricia Grace, who penned the novel on which the film is based, bring the tale to life. The ensemble cast of age-diverse female performers embody their characters so fully and so well it is hard to imagine anyone else in their roles.
Three Maori girls, cousins in the Pairama family, become very close as children, protecting and helping each, though they are very different in personality and demeanor. Mata, an introverted child of a Māori mother and Pākehā (English) father, gets sent away to live apart from her cousins and all those she loves, and this severing of all the ties to family causes a sadness that alters her permanently. Makareta is the spoiled child who straddles both Te Ao Māori (the Māori world) and Te Ao Pākehā (the English world). Extremely independent and strong-willed, she strains against being bound by the expectations of family. Throughout her life, she never gives up the search for Mata. The third cousin Missy is above all driven by duty to the land and family, and is the heart of the Pairama clan. Spanning decades, Cousins weaves a theme of loss and connection through all three stories of these women both as told separately and as part of a fiercely loving family.
Te Ao Māori, or the Māori world view, suffuses the film and is essential to authenticity and tone. It also amplifies a cinematic voice rarely seen in world cinema, and that voice is personified by an impressive list of Māori women.
The writers, directors, and cast all represent the highest caliber of New Zealand filmmaking. The co-directors are Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace Smith, but both take on multiple roles as part of creating the film. Gardiner is not only an award-winning director, she also produced Cousins, and has produced many critically acclaimed and successful films, including several with Taika Waititi. She founded Miss Conception Films, a production company focusing on films featuring female creatives in front of and behind the camera. Grace Smith is not only great as older Makareta, she also wrote the film and is an award-winning playwright, no doubt making her novelist mom proud. Older Mata is played by Tanea Heke, who is director of Toi Whakaari, New Zealand’s leading drama school, and is one of the most prominent actors in Aotearoa (New Zealand’s Māori name). Rachel House, known for her roles in Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnorok, plays older Missy. She was awarded a New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the Performing Arts. Even with such weighted star power, it is Tanea Heke who imbues Mata with an unforgettably haunted, untethered quality that will get under the audience’s skin.
There are definitely influences from earlier classics of world cinema, not least Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. The cinematography in both the exterior and interior scenes are anchored with a sense of place and family history. Like Daughters of the Dust, Cousins is also steeped in a larger community’s tradition and aesthetic. In this case of this new film, it is Tikanga Māori, or Māori cultural practice.
Cousins celebrates so many things at once, including talented women of color, Māori traditions and worldview, and the value of not only family, but sisterhood and relationships uniquely found between women. It is a lovely, moving tribute to the unbreakable ties that love makes, created by some of the best women in world film. Here’s hoping it will be seen widely and appreciated.
4 1/2 out of 5 stars.