This Town is being billed as 2020’s feel good Kiwi comedy movie, but Amanda Thompson finds it a gentle romcom with a heart of surprisingly confronting darkness.
Movies about rural New Zealand are going to be funny, either intentionally or unintentionally. It’s a funny place and we’re funny people, and New Zealanders are so good at laughing at themselves – but can we laugh at murder?
Stupid question, of course we can! Dark comedy This Town is unquestionably funny, filled with visual gags and sly mockery of its own audience. Sort of a romcom, sort of a whodunnit, it’s written, directed and starred in by Hawke’s Bay old boy David White. This Town is really about rural people – and about how much we love to gossip.
There’s not a lot of time wasted introducing the plot, which is fine because no matter how many times the film’s production team say it’s fictional and not based on the infamous David Bain case, it’s remarkably similar to the infamous David Bain case. Sean (White) is our hero, a gentle country boy looking for love. Enter the mawkishly sweet Casey (Alice May Connolly), who just wants a nice guy who won’t make her wait for him round the back of the pub. But did Sean kill his whole family and burn down their home to cover it up? Everybody in their small community of Thiston seems to thinks so. Casey is under a lot of pressure to cut and run for the tawny Waipukurau hills. But should she put her trust in Sean’s “kind eyes” and hope that she, too, won’t wake up one morning, well, dead?
It’s a bit hard to work out who the real villain in this movie, but not too hard. There’s a murder mystery in here somewhere, but it’s pushed out of the way by some genuinely hilarious visual gags and funny characters. Sometimes inanimate objects take over completely and White is wise enough to let them – Sean’s ridiculously oversized chainsaw and the police station printer have laugh-out-loud comic bits. The movie is packed with recognisable rural characters played by recognisable Kiwi stars, perfectly cast. Rima Te Wiata obviously had a lot of fun playing silly twit Janice McMannis, a small town reporter who dreams of writing a best-selling book. Funny but true: she’s basically me but with better frocks.
Sparsely scripted – just like us regular country folx – miserably inarticulate men stare at the camera and trail off into “uh… I dunno”. Alex won’t listen to Sean’s relationship angst: “Eh. I couldn’t be bothered quite frankly.” Stone-fruit bottling Alex (Aaron Cortesi) and his wine swigging wife Jules (Loren Taylor) are wonderful. Jules particularly steals my heart, moaning about men being dicks while she casually checks her kid’s hair for nits. There’s someone for everyone, says Alex directly to camera, letting us in on the fact the movie is shot mockumentary style.
It’s a method White is comfortable with from his previous projects (Meat, I Kill, The Couple). We, the audience, are invited along to follow the trials and tribulations of our shy lovebirds, but Sean and Casey aren’t the stars of this movie. If their vapid romance has been complicated by Sean being a community outcast, it’s nothing compared to how the unsolved murder case has affected Pam. Ex-police officer and current alpaca owner Pam is played magnificently by Robyn Malcom, pouring real drama into scene after scene with her obsessive bad-assery. Part serious investigator, part vicious persecutor, Pam is tortured by “that murdering bastard” Sean walking around free, enjoying the idyllic Hawke’s Bay weather. She can’t stop searching for that final clue that will prove Sean did it – and he must have. Because if Sean didn’t do it, then who did?
Of course, everyone in town knows this bit of gossip, because everyone spreads it around. Real-life rural communities live and breathe on second-hand stories from a neighbour’s cousin’s milk truck driver’s boyfriend’s mum, and fictional Thiston is no different. “This town!” sighs Casey darkly, describing the dire dating scene in Thiston, full of guys who just want to stick their dicks up your bum. “At least Sean’s nice.” But is he that nice? Pam’s key witness, Amanda, says Sean sexually assaulted her one night when she was “completely maggoted”. “When I came to, he was all over me.”
As if the Me Too movement was all just a brief bad dream, Amanda is presented as a parody – an attention-seeking drunk-ass spinner. But we believe women, right? But we also think our hero Sean is a good guy, right? I guess there’s nothing more “small town New Zealand” than that little conundrum, right? I get that this scene offers a heavy-handed clue to the real content of these characters, but the not-all-men overtones feel like this storyline is starting to freewheel onto a dark and bumpy road. So many women are going to lose interest in Sean winning his girl at this point. Why would we want to get in behind a romantic hero who’s accused of sexual assault and drags out the old “but I was drunk” excuse? We get enough of that kind of disappointment in real life. This may be a movie about the pernicious power of rumours, but just to clarify: it ain’t a rumour if it’s actually true.
Casey’s girlfriends all try to warn her off Sean. Pam tries to warn Casey about Sean. I, personally, would like to lean into the screen, take Casey by the shoulders and tell her to damn well stay away from Sean. Bleating “he told me he didn’t do it!” Casey shows she’s an unexpectedly ride-or-die bitch, agonisingly dumb in love.
It’s a depressingly relatable standoff for all of us who have been unwillingly cast in the role of Casey’s girlfriends in real life, Casey’s dogged loyalty to this guy she doesn’t know very well just makes me feel frustrated and sad. And I know it’s not just me. If 35% of New Zealand women have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence in this country and there were 133,022 “family harm” investigations by NZ Police in 2018, do you want to make a guess at just how many of us have been that friend? More than once, even? Let’s not even count the 76% of family harm incidents that the New Zealand Crime and Safety Survey (2015) says go unreported to the police. So many women in this country have zipped their lips and tried to give their sister’s boyfriend the benefit of the doubt because it’s not true, he’s changed, he’s promised not to do it again, and his bitch ex just made it up. So many women have to listen to the screaming when the rumours turn out to be true and he breaks her fingers or jaw or skin and so many women have to call the cops, help clean up the smashed-up blood-smeared bedroom and get their loved friend to the hospital and hope for the best and then go through the whole cycle yet again next month. We’re tired of it.
But never mind us. Powered by a mostly upbeat and generally wonderful selection of tunes by Phoenix Foundation, Marlon Williams and Moniker, the movie rolls cheerfully and ruthlessly on over this icky patch towards the climax, where it looks like our young lovers are finally going to be torn apart forever to Sean’s grief and Pam’s relief. Or are they?
I expect loads of farming or farming-adjacent people will flock to the first screenings this week, looking to see themselves represented on screen. The one thing I couldn’t have forgiven this movie for is lazy, cliched and just plain wrong representations of how country life is lived. But there’s a bone-deep understanding of how truly funny and sweet and difficult the rural side of our nation is, in so many small ways. Granted, This Town shows a pretty specific kind of small-town New Zealand – for one thing, it’s very white up there in Thiston, and where are all the dogs? The sun-bleached hills and wide blue sky and the Patangata Tavern should all be given their own billing high in the credits, lovingly placed front and centre. Apparently there’s going to be a red carpet screening in Waipukurau and so there should be. This Town is a frustratingly problematic, clever, gloriously sly and darkly quirky little work of art and I would recommend it to everyone. See you at the cinema, New Zealand.
This Town is available in selected cinemas from August 6.