The responsibility society at large has towards children has been a point of contention for decades, and it’s a problem that has only become more markedly disjointed in recent years. There’s a massive dichotomy between, for instance, certain political figures and groups vilifying the prospect of abortion while relatively shrugging at the wave of mass shootings in schools. Children are simultaneously revered and dismissed, and parents are similarly seen as either saintly or highly suspect, with not much room for nuance in between. When and to what degree should governments get involved with protecting children, and how much ethical and economic freedom should parents be granted, especially if they have their kids’ best interests in mind?
These are the questions at the core of The Justice of Bunny King, a drama from New Zealand and set within that country. Bunny (Essie Davis) is a woman in her early 40s who is wrestling with the local social services in order to regain custody of her children, teenager Reuben (Angus Stevens) and younger daughter Shannon (Amelie Baynes). Bunny refuses to make it an easy sell: she’s not only technically poor and homeless, living with her more well-to-do sister and brother-in-law, but she’s also jobless, making a meager wage by washing cars on the highway. The cherry on top is that she’s an ex-con, convicted of killing her ex-husband. As such, the government treats Bunny condescendingly and keeps her at arm’s length, a slight that Bunny feels all too keenly every time she’s made to fill out a form and wait in the lobby just to talk to her representative. Right as she seems about to turn a corner in her fight with social services, she spots her brother-in-law propositioning his teenage stepdaughter, Tonya (Thomasin McKenzie). Enraged, Bunny barely hesitates before attacking the man, and gets herself kicked out of his house in the process, forcing her to rethink her plan to gain visitation rights with Shannon for the girl’s birthday party.
Part of The Justice of Bunny King’s unevenness lies in its tonal approach to Bunny’s exploits. Her dream of celebrating Shannon’s birthday the way she promised becomes a micro goal treated as a macro one, especially as more and more obstacles pile up that would seem to put a stop to it happening. Thavat treats this quest almost like an indie dramedy or Coen Brothers film at times, with Karl Steven’s score dissonantly playing upbeat music under moments that otherwise feel fairly harrowing. The Justice of Bunny King seems to be firmly on the title character’s side, yet it’s almost like it can’t help but invite the audience to laugh too much sometimes, as the protagonist does things that aren’t exactly level-headed. Fortunately, by the time Tonya runs away from home with Bunny and the two find themselves in a Dog Day Afternoon-type situation, the movie has settled enough to support the tense drama it’s developed into, making earlier dalliances into twee-ness that much more suspect.
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Unequivocally, the single element that carries The Justice of Bunny King — as well as saves it during its spottier moments — is Davis, who gives a performance so good that it cements her as being in the top tier of film actors currently working. In lesser hands, Bunny could be positively insufferable, a woman oscillating between self-loathing and righteous indignation who has no qualms about her appearance, attitude or demeanor. She’s also a constant “bullshit artist,” someone who lies herself into corner after corner, a quality that the film portrays as endearing sometimes and shady at others. Yet Davis keeps Bunny relatable every step of the way, allowing her to be beautifully nuanced rather than err on any one aspect of her character. Davis is never less than utterly watchable, her face a myriad of emotions as Bunny thinks through every moment she encounters — The Justice of Bunny King is a movie where this complicated character announces at one point that she’s “doing the best [she] can” and such a platitude feels completely honest. Bunny King is a character who feels like the next step after Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning turn in Nomadland (2020), a woman who refuses to conform to society’s rules and be victimized.
That refusal of victimization is what allows The Justice of Bunny King’s subplot regarding Tonya and her sexual abuse to feel of a piece rather than awkwardly included. McKenzie is a perfect companion to Davis as an actress, as she can similarly play complexity extremely well — for instance, it’s ambiguous what Tonya’s feelings toward her plight are for a long time, as McKenzie plays everything from confusion and shame to denial and so on. In a movie partially about Bunny desperately attempting to be a good mother to those under her wing, Tonya ends up being Bunny’s biggest success, the girl refusing to capitulate to larger forces that want her to simply conform to adverse conditions.
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It’s a testament to the strength of these lead actresses that Thavat basically stays out of their way craft-wise, capturing the characters in real locations with immediacy. Sophie Henderson’s screenplay builds to The Justice of Bunny King’s inevitable collision of characters and consequences, allowing the movie to have more and more empathy for Bunny as it goes along. There’s a sense that Thavat’s film may have gotten too outsized by the end, but it feels more right than not to have Bunny’s bullshit as well as her righteous quest for justice escalate to such proportions. It makes her situation not unlike those of the protagonists of many a social thriller, as it becomes clear that seemingly no one at social services had even bothered to look up for what reason Bunny had been incarcerated — they’re just drones following their procedure the way it’s been dictated to them. After 2019’s wave of satires attacking the ultra-rich, films like Nomadland and The Justice of Bunny King seem to be exploring the other side of the class gap problem, pointing out how the poor aren’t necessarily the disreputables that society would want to paint them as. Like Davis’ performance and the film itself, Bunny King is not so easily dismissed.
Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.