Cousins – Family drama interweaves the experiences of three Māori cousins over a lifetime of struggle, heartbreak, and love

Six decades of life sets out a very different path for the three Pairama cousins. Even as we meet Mata (Tanea Heke), Makareta (Briar Grace Smith) and Missy (Rachel House) in the modern day, we are thrown back into their experiences of relationships, traumas, and growing up as a Māori woman in New Zealand, and we see how the three family members became the people they are today.

Cousins was released in New Zealand in March of this year to cinema-goers who didn’t know how lucky they were to watch it on a big screen. More than three months later, the family drama is now accessible through the New Zealand Embassy in Ireland. This accoutrement added an unfair hype to Cousins which, for better or worse, left me feeling a little flat about the film.

Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace Smith co-direct the film, electing to follow the lives of their three main characters through flash backs and forward. In trying to track the cousins across different stages of their lives, separately and together, it could have become very muddled.

While Cousins doesn’t always pull this feat off with the greatest narrative coherence, we are still able to follow the change of these characters through crafty visual cues, especially with Mata. The shots tracking Mata as she wanders Wellington’s streets are haunting and we’re regular given sympathetic back story to her quirks. This skillful tracking, as well as the beautiful cinematography and subtle music score, belies Gardiner and Smith’s lack of directorial experience.

However, like 2020’s Savage, Cousins does struggle to balance a solid narrative with cinematic beauty.

Smith is on hand to co-write Cousins with Patricia Grace, the author of the 1992 novel on which the film is based. As with many sprawling family dramas set over generations, it’s difficult to unfurl a dense novel’s narrative. It seems as if Smith and Grace focused on too many stories for them to satisfy their subplots. While the main plot tying the cousins together is strong, there are several narrative threads that go nowhere, including a land dispute between the Pairama family and the local government, and a young Matareka’s decision to flee from the weight of family expectations.

The motivations of key characters, including the decision of Mata’a parents to abandon her as a child, remains frustratingly foggy too. It’s a case of too much in too little time for Grace and Smith.

In the acting department, there are solid performances across the board without anything that’ll blow you away. Rachel House delivers her usual magnetic strength in her role as the older Missy, while Tanea Heke is all dead-eyed vacancy as the unhinged older Mata. Smith also stars, and the cast of Cousins represent a strong crop of Māori acting talent that we can expect to see many times again in the future.

Cousins runs a scathing eye over the colonial experience for New Zealand’s Māori people that’s rarely talked about on a broad level. It’s an important and aesthetically beautiful film, even if it is confused by constant flash-backs and forwards and loose plot points that are never tied up.

Cousins evokes a different memory of New Zealand’s recent past than the one many think of. Thought-provoking and emotional, the film does fall flat with a confused plot. 6.5/10.

Big thanks to the New Zealand Embassy for access to Cousins!

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