This article appears in the January 2019 issue of Flix Premiere’s Close Up magazine.
According to Maori legend, the fantail – a small, brownish bird equipped with a large white tail that spans out like the wings of a fan – is a ghostly premonition. It foreshadows death. And it haunts and shares its name with the masterful film Fantail, shot on location in New Zealand. Directed by Curtis Vowell, and written by Sophie Henderson, who also stars as Tania, a young, blonde petrol station attendant who thinks that she is Maori.
She cares for her ailing mother and listless younger brother Pi (Jahalis Ngamotu), with whom she is saving money to visit her father in Queens-land, until Pi takes a job as a fruit-picker in the Bay of Pigs, and begins hanging out with the wrong crowd. Up until the film’s dramatic conclusion, the centrality of the film takes place during her dreamy, slipstream graveyard shifts at the service station. It’s where she faces misogyny, and also builds a friendship with co-worker Rag (Stephen Lovatt).
Henderson delivers a deft and captivating performance as Tania, bringing to life her strength mixed with fear, her naivete combined with an air of being wise beyond her years. She is the emotional core of the terrific Fantail. The dreamy cinematography helps establish a sense of place: the station where she works, too, becomes a character, mirroring the characters’ own volatility and sense of wonder. It is like Tania is the gatekeeper of another word. This mythological quality is particularly fitting, as the film is undergirded by a Maori legend, and Tania herself is living with a particular family mythos. Fantail is both a closed circuit, a world of its own, yet reaches out to poignantly touch on social issues.
The film has an air of simplicity that belies its rich interior life, mirroring Tania herself. It also has a strong sense of comedic timing – but it is a kind of comedy that veers more towards self-preservation that slapstick or physical comedy. It’s comedy as a way of making sense of the world and Tania’s uncertain place in it. The station is quite literally a cage for Tania, as she peers out into the night through metal bars.
Fantail is gorgeously crafted and will weave an eerie yet resplendent spell. A film about the complicated nature of identity and becoming, it will make the spectator think for days after watching. It is essential viewing.