Savage (4 stars)

Savage

Life in a New Zealand street gang is examined with sensitivity by filmmaker Sam Kelly

Finding your tribe is the essence of an intimately realised study of life on the fringes, which documents the powerful lure of gang membership when conventional society throws you to the wolves. Inspired by true stories, this Kiwi production is the feature debut of writer-director Sam Kelly, who offers up a sympathetic protagonist and carefully charts his journey from boy to man.

As played by Olly Presling, Danny is a sensitive, courageous kid from a large family, living hand-to-mouth in 1965; he offers his mother (Renee Lyons) food from his plate when he sees her going without, and uses his body as a barrier to spare his younger sister a thrashing from their bastard of a father (Matthew Sunderland). When Danny is sent to borstal for an easy-to-excuse theft, it's a defining moment, setting him on a criminal path. His protective instincts win him a friend in roommate Moses (Lotima Pome'e) and the two take off together following their release, eventually founding a gang – the Savages – of which Moses becomes president and Danny, the enforcer.

Jake Ryan plays latter-day Danny, heavily facially tattooed and known by then – because he's done an awful lot of it – as Damage, with John Tui the adult Moses, and James Matamua and Haanz Fa'avae Jackson playing the pair in their late teens / early twenties. As so many Antipodeans have done before him, the Australia-born Ryan casts off the stigma of soap opera (Home and Away in his case). It's a role that has potential as an international breakthrough; if not quite an Eric-Bana-in-Chopper moment, it's confident work nonetheless, with Ryan maintaining a soulful and sensitive disposition, irrespective of Danny's crimes, allowing us to connect this scary-looking bloke to the noble lad he was.

It's unusual for the toll that physically harming others takes to be so explicitly investigated (though the recent Calm with Horses did so brilliantly too); Kelly shows how hard Danny finds it, needing to psyche himself up each time. We stay incredibly tight on the character's warped little world, keeping things claustrophobic and credible, and encouraging us to acknowledge that violent criminals can be vulnerable too.

Available to watch in cinemas from Fri 11 Sep.

Savage

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • New Zealand
  • 1h 40min
  • 18
  • Directed by: Sam Kelly
  • Cast: Jake Ryan, John Tui, Chelsie Preston Crayford

Crime drama inspired by the true stories of New Zealand's street gangs. The film follows Danny as he grows from a boy into the violent enforcer of a gang.

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