This week's top pick is an auspicious sophomore film from down under titled "The Dark Horse". Directed by New Zealand filmmaker James Napier Robertson, this inspirational sports drama has been quietly racking up acclaim along the indie film circuit since its 2014 debut. And like the title suggests, this underdog story surprisingly wins you over its humanistic spirit.
Based on the true story of a troubled New Zealand chess champion, the film stars Cliff Curtis in the lead role of Genesis. Beginning from his early years when he first discovered the game with his friend Ariki, the film fast forwards to his adult years, when Genesis has just been released from a mental hospital. Put in the care of Ariki, he meets Mana, Ariki's son who is being groomed to join a notorious local gang. With troubling memories of his own experience with the group, Ariki decides to turn his attention away from his new home, forming a chess club with some of the underprivileged local youth. Seeing an opportunity when noone else can, he coaches them with the intentions of entering the upcoming national championship. But when Mana decides to rebel against his father's gang-related wishes and join the club, a conflict of allegiance arises that may threaten the hopes of the club and the stability of the community at large.
Indeed, the concept of stability forms the foundation of the youth group that Genesis gets involved with. As he is advised by their guardian, these children have effectively been abandoned by family and society alike. A reliable role model is therefore a necessity in order to keep them on the right path.
And thus brings up the central dilemma of the film, as the team's success and stability is reliant on a bipolar man. It's a premise that Robertson handles deftly, imbuing the formulaic broad strokes with nuance through the actions of our complex protagonist as well as the other characters. Known for his abilities as a chameleon - playing Latin Americans, Arabs and everything in between - Genesis (a Maori like himself) truly feels like the role Curtis was born to play. Childlike in his optimistic outlook but threatening in his unpredictable physicality, he takes the typical "disability" role and uses it to show universal truths about suffering and healing.
Ultimately, Genesis' journey takes you where you wants to go with a film of this ilk and yet, "The Dark Horse" rises above the fray of other easy crowdpleasers. With its gritty, urban aura that feels painstakingly specific to the region, a sentimental ending never feels assured, as the plot explores a test of wills from all corners - the game of chess, the psychological vulnerability of Genesis and the oppressive forces of a stagnant society. As such, each small triumph feels wholly earned and fully gratifying, an increasing rarity for the now ubiquitous underdog sports drama. This small indie film may be a dark horse in the grand scheme of things, but Robertson's well considered filmmaking is the stuff champions are made of.