A former chess prodigy suffers a breakdown, spends years in and out of psychiatric hospitals then finds peace teaching deprived kids how to play chess. Sounds like the recipe for an Oscar-winning Tom Hanks weepy. But this gritty, authentic drama from New Zealand avoids all the usual based-on-an-inspirational-true-story Hollywood clichés.
It gets off to a slowish start as gentle giant Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis) is released from hospital a wreck of a man, his front teeth knocked out and sporting a patchy Mohawk. With nowhere else to go, he moves in with his psychotic biker-gang brother. Away from home, Gen finds a kids’ chess group and decides to knock them into shape for the Auckland junior championship.
The scenes with the kids are gorgeous; they bundle into the back of a clapped-out van to travel to the big smoke where the posh kids in school uniforms look at them like they’re wild animals in a zoo. There are no happy-ever-afters here, just an understanding that life is cracked and hard to fix. It’s a film with the texture and truth of life, and at its heart is a beautiful performance by Cliff Curtis, who never in a million years will be nominated for an Oscar, but deserves one.