James Napier Robertson’s stirring biopic about Maori folk hero Genesis Potini succeeded not just in telling the story of a remarkable life, but also in taking an unflinching look at mental illness, at risk youth and gang culture in New Zealand’s lower classes. The fact that he could make a film about so many important issues without diluting the overall message is quite an accomplishment.
Cliff Curtis is superb as Potini, a one time speed chess prodigy, whose struggles with autism often left him living on the streets. He manages to channel his gift for chess, as well as his passion for his Maori heritage, to inspire the Eastern Knights Chess Club, a rag tag group of youngsters in his community.
While Curtis delivers a well judge, sympathetic, and totally immersive performance, it is not a one man show. The young support cast are equally strong, a group of kids that are totally charming and believable.
Films about eccentric mentors inspiring troubled youth are common in cinema, often over done, with a tendency to overly simplify the issues. The Dark Horse doesn’t offer any easy answers or quick fixes, but delivers a social drama/biopic that is immaculately written, directed and acted.