In “The Dark Horse,” a New Zealand drama from writer-director James Napier Robertson about a real-life Maori chess coach with mental illness, star Cliff Curtis is so heartbreakingly convincing in the lead role that he routinely frees you of the feeling you’re watching one more adversity saga with scrappy kids and a third-act tournament.
The movie is both more and less than its inspirational trappings. If its wobbliness doesn’t always serve its commanding central performance, the movie does mark a sensitive, low-key approach to outsiders of any kind, one that legitimizes their struggle without selling them as ready-made saints.
It opens with Gen having a worrisome public episode in his hometown of Gisborne — muttering to himself in the rain, scaring a store’s customers when reacting to a fancy chessboard — followed by a psych ward stay. His brother Ariki (a superb Wayne Hapi), stern-eyed and skeptical that his troubled sibling can right himself, reluctantly takes Gen to his ramshackle home, a gang hub, where Ariki’s son, Mana (James Rolleston), is intrigued by his uncle’s kindness and passion for chess but fearful of disobeying his dad’s authority.
Seeking stability and positivity, Gen begs a nearby friend, Noble (Kirk Torrance), to let him coach the Eastern Knights, a local chess club for the economically distressed town’s most troubled kids, and prepare them for the national championships in Auckland. Gen’s mentoring style is to teach the chessboard as a metaphor for a land protected, with the idea that a kid thinking many moves ahead in a game will do so in making a life.
It’s a bumpy road, though, with Gen eminently susceptible to pressures that exacerbate his illness and Curtis expertly putting across that teetering. Because rather than compartmentalize Gen’s issues into movie-friendly tics that separate “normal” from “crazy,” Curtis’ potency — apart from his soulfully pinched mug — is in offering up a portrayal of concerted betterment built with the things that make us all human: a swirl of worry, joy, persistence, intelligence, confusion, sadness and responsibility. In a community riven with beaten-down lives, this childlike striver’s occasional breaks with decorum barely qualify as unusual and often seem understandable.
The movie, in fact, is almost hampered by the rudiments of the chess tournament story line, which Robertson wavers between treating as a feel-good engine and a naturalistic shading. He avoids band-of-misfits cheesiness with the younger performers but never builds any genuine suspense or appreciation for mastering something tough.
Though not a terribly artful filmmaker, Robertson is good with actors in close-up (even if it is overused) and at allowing his patiently agitating camera to show the grit of dead-end poverty that the brother’s gang world represents and Gen needs to escape: a pit of self-destruction populated by bleary-eyed toughs eager to brutalize and immune to hope.
The movie’s best scenes are the tense family exchanges between the nervously emboldened Gen and the hardened, defeatist Ariki, who has grimly violent initiation plans for Mana. In these moments, “The Dark Horse” is as effective as any movie in recent memory at depicting the terrible stranglehold that destitution and despair have on their prisoners.
It’s fitting, then, that descriptor in a title which otherwise might suggest your average underdog tale. “The Dark Horse” is indeed anchored by a deceptively lived-in performance that, supported by an understanding filmmaker, goes a long way toward conveying the hardship of simply trying to manage one’s weaknesses while nurturing and sharing those hidden strengths.
‘The Dark Horse’
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes
MPAA rating: R, for language throughout and drug use
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles