Between “The Babadook,” “Babyteeth,” and her own husband’s “True History of the Kelly Gang,” Australian actress Essie Davis has established herself as modern cinema’s most anguished mother. Nobody is better at — or more committed to — playing “good” parents in bad situations. She’s a widowed single mom who’s terrorized by a demonic manifestation of her own grief. She’s a Sydney woman who’s teenage daughter is coming of age and dying of cancer at the same time. She’s a loving matriarch of an infamous outlaw family who’s proud to watch her son get hanged for his crimes. It’s because Davis is so drawn to the agonies of unconditional love that she’s able to sell the beauty of it; no matter how wrenching and feral these performances might be, they all make it perfectly clear why having kids is worth the threat of losing them (and/or your own mind).
In that light, “The Justice of Bunny King” almost seems to have been reverse-engineered from the specifics of Davis’ skillset. A familiar but arrestingly frenzied drama about a New Zealand woman fresh out of jail and fighting to reunite with her kids by any means necessary, Gaysorn Thavat’s debut feature is nothing if not an 101-minute supercut of its star doing what she does best. If the movie itself can be as clumsy and erratic as its heroine — especially during a third act that tries to split the difference between the Dardenne brothers and “Dog Day Afternoon” — Davis’ performance holds it all together with the power of centrifugal force, the actress spinning in circles of joy and rage so fast that you couldn’t get up from your seat even if you wanted to.
If Sophie Henderson’s script takes a needlessly cryptic approach to the particulars of Bunny’s arrest (everybody in the movie is too eagerly looking down on her to care about the details, but the drama feels underbaked without them), the realities of her life after prison are all too clear. Bunny can’t regain custody of her kids without a home. She can’t get a home without a job. She can’t get a job because of her criminal record. And she can’t squeegee car windows at crosswalks without people screaming at her to “get a real job.”
Unaffordable high-rises are springing out of the ground like perennials, and yet Auckland is in the midst of a severe housing crisis. Bunny might consider herself lucky that her sister Grace (Toni Potter) has offered her a couch to sleep on, but that arrangement puts her at the mercy of Grace’s boyfriend (Errol Shand as Bevan), who’s such a total schmuck that it’s barely surprising to see him make a pass at Grace’s underage daughter, Tonyah (Thomasin McKenzie).
Whatever Bunny may have done in the past, Thavat’s high-spirited movie is quick to insist that we like her. She’s spunky. She’s abrasive, but offers kindness to anyone who needs it or doesn’t get in her way. Most of all, she’s the best mother that she knows how to be under the present circumstances. Bunny’s only allowed to see her kids during supervised meetings at the Government Family Services offices, but her disabled young daughter Shannon (Amelie Baynes) lights up like the sun itself every time she sees her mommy. The promise of the little girl’s upcoming birthday party is enough to keep them both afloat, even if Bunny’s teenage son Reuben (Angus Stevens) remains unconvinced.
It would be one thing if Bunny just had to stay the course in order to stabilize her life and get her kids back, but there’s no indication that putting her head down would ever pay off. With a lucidity that never borders on cynicism — thanks in part to the sheer life force that Davis brings to every scene — Thavat’s film recognizes our world as a place where people are itching for any excuse to dehumanize their downtrodden neighbors. It’s the oldest fallacy in the world: “I’m getting by, and that person is not. I’ve worked hard for my good fortune, and therefore that person must also deserve their lot in life.”
Even when this movie’s pacing gets out of sorts and its plotting falls on the wonky side, it burns with a white-hot rage against the assumptions that people deserve to be poor, and that poor people are implicitly bad parents. Tempering the righteousness suggested by its title while still kindling its fury, “The Justice of Bunny King” so vividly recognizes the role that (even well-meaning) institutions play in advancing those social dynamics that even Bunny’s most self-sabotaging moments seem earned.
Is it smart for her to show up at her kids’ foster home even though she’s explicitly forbidden from doing that? Probably not, but there’s little other way for her to see them, and any parent on Earth would understand that calculus. Is it a wise long-term play for her to piss in Bevan’s car? Well, she has to do something, even if her sister refuses to hear the truth.
These fits of anger don’t always make for the most seamless of stories, but Davis sells them all in the heat of the moment. Her desperation is so incandescent, in fact, that Thavat’s film almost gets away with its climactic swerve into hostage crisis territory; an overblown finale that encourages some unexpected characters to see Bunny’s humanity. It’s a pyrrhic victory in a movie too honest for a traditional happy ending, but however contrived the story beats might feel (particularly so far as McKenzie’s underwritten character is concerned), there’s something beautiful to the way that Davis clings onto the last shreds of Bunny’s self-worth, her love glowing brighter even as her anger burns down everything else around it.
FilmRise will release “The Justice of Bunny King” in theaters in LA and Seattle on Friday, September 23. The movie will be available on VOD on Friday, September 30.