Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

Ruby Dee as the matriarch

Fijian family feast foments feelings, fights and flourishing future

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed and Written by: Tao Fraser, adapted from his play
Produced by: Philippa Campbell, Lydia Livingstone and Timothy White
Director of Photography: Leon Narbey
Edited by: Chris Plummer
Music by: Don McGlashan
New Zealand. English. 96 minutes. Rated PG
With: Ruby Dee, Mia Blake, Rene Naufahu, Miriama McDowell, Taungaroa Emile, Xavier Horan and Tuva Novotny

Naming Number Two may be the first feature about Fijian immigrants, let alone in New Zealand, but its delightful portrait of an extended family can be universally appreciated.

Debut writer/director Tao Fraser drew on his Pacific Islander roots in adapting and opening up his play Number Two. While recalling the cinematic tradition of inter-generational squabbles around a family meal in Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman and its Chicano adaptation Tortilla Soup, Danièle Thompson’s La Buche, Looking for Alibrandi about Italian-Australians and Barry Levinson’s Avalon about Baltimore Jews, Fraser avoids nostalgic schmaltz by both wholeheartedly embracing the past and looking to the future.

Ruby Dee anchors the film and the family as Nanna Maria. Surrounded by old photographs and tapes of Fijian music, the matriarch wakens from a dream of a big family wedding in the past. She denounces the house she shares with two of her grown grandchildren, siblings Charlene and Erasmus (maternal Mia Blake and Rene Naufahu, quite manly in a sarong) and their young children as “boring as hell” and commands them to organize a feast that will also celebrate her late husband’s experiences in Sicily surviving the war. She wants singing, dancing, laughing and fighting. With more than one amusing wink to New Zealand’s The Lord of the Rings association, she orders them to get their cousins and barks out assignments – the boys are to cut down the trees to make room in the backyard, and slaughter and roast a pig, while the girls are to cook up a lot of different foods. But there’s to be no “outsiders” and her “bloody useless” children are to be excluded. Their incentive to obey: she will be naming her successor.

The cousins protest. Sassy Hibiscus (Miriama McDowell) insists on bringing her white boyfriend Shelley. Her brother Tyson (hunky Xavier Horan, memorably making his film debut entrance barely wrapped in a towel) had planned a romantic farewell for his Danish girlfriend Maria (a sparkling Tuva Novotny) in his fancy sports car before her return to Europe. In Down Under slang a larrikin, Soul (Taungaroa Emile, more grown up since Once Were Warriors and Whale Rider) drives around to pounding hip hop and flaunts a nickname of Raskil, a twist on their Auckland neighborhood of Mt. Roskill, and is only silenced by the pretty Chinese girl next door. Their parents bitterly complain and bring up old grudges and curses, symbolized by a boarded up door. But Nanna Maria is not to be denied – “I rule you. You don’t rule me.” She even pulls out a machete to reinforce her demands. How over the course of a single, very busy day each family member is gradually won over, and even Nanna Maria learns to compromise in the name of love and family peace is the film’s charm.

A fresh perspective for this heartwarming film compared to other ethnic or immigrant portrayals is the close mutual affection between the grandmother and her grown grandchildren. They tenderly care for her and scramble to make her happy. Dealing with their curious lovers and argumentative parents, they prove themselves worthy both of breaking with the negative past and of carrying on positive traditions, as Nanna Marie proudly proclaims “My grandchildren are in charge. They’re taking care of everything.” Reinforced by the varied camera work of cinematographer Leon Narbey (also from Whale Rider), each convincing character is a distinct individual, with a unique personality and family role, just as Nanna Marie declares that every family needs a head, a heart and strong men who can laugh.

Note: Cyan Pictures did not release the film in the U.S. as expected, after I saw it at an advance press screening in 2007.

July 25, 2007

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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