Opening this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival and now making its way to Australia, The Dark Horse elevates its familiar storyline through specificity and authenticity. It tells the story of Genesis “Dark Horse” Potini (played by Kiwi character actor Cliff Curtis), an erstwhile speed chess player who now exhibits erratic behaviour fuelled by his bipolar disorder.
In a storyline that seemingly borrows from The Mighty Ducks and Dead Poets Society (though it’s actually based in real-life), Gen volunteers – or demands might be the better word – to coach a local community group of troubled kids, taking them from a run-down community hall to the national chess championships in Auckland. Amongst the kids’ number is Gen’s nephew, Mana (played by James Rolleston, who was the boy in Boy), who’s slated to join his father’s bikie gang.
The core of this underdog story is defined by cliché. While writer-director James Napier Robertson does occasionally lean on the sentimentality of the material (and sadly underplays the humour), he avoids schmaltz through verisimilitude. Unlike, say, Silver Linings Playbook, Gen’s mental illness doesn’t simply evaporate, and Mana’s problems require more than a chess tournament to overcome. The Dark Horse earns the catharsis of its climax.