On one hand, The Dark Horse is a traditional underdog story about a team of misfits and the coach who believed in them. On the other hand, it’s about so much more. This is an emotional true story that tackles mental illness, abusive homes, and second chances at life. There are many other movies out there that try to address these difficult subjects, but few know what they’re talking about. Every second of The Dark Horse, however, feels 100% genuine.
Cliff Curtis gives a remarkable, committed performance as Genesis Potini, a Gisborne man who suffers from bipolar disorder. Genesis is virtually homeless. If he’s not being hospitalized, he’s usually sleeping somewhere outdoors. Although his life has hit many roadblocks, Genesis is a gifted chess player and decides to teach several youths how to play the game. Curtis completely loses himself in this complex role, making the audience fully empathize with this broken man who finally finds a purpose.
Genesis forms a particularly powerful bond with a teenager named Mana, affectionately played by James Rolleston. Wayne Hapi is haunting as Mana’s father, a cruel man who’s brought his son up to believe that he’ll never amount to anything. Genesis sees that Mana can be much more than a gang member, though, and encourages him to compete with the others in a chess tournament. On paper, this might sound like something out of an after school special. The film presents this drama in a brutally honest fashion, however, and never takes any cheap shots. Although it may seem predictable at first, the narrative that unfolds is gripping, intense, and anything but conventional.
As far as stories revolving around chess go, The Dark Horse is probably the most memorable movie of its kind since Searching for Bobby Fischer. Of course the chess tournament is actually the least interesting aspect of the film. If anything, the tournament’s final results are kind of glanced over. The real focus here is the meaningful relationships these people share and how they improve each other’s lives. Just as chess is a thinking man’s game, this film is full of thought-provoking moments and morals.
Believe it or not, The Dark Horse was written and directed by James Napier Robertson, who’s best known for his role on Power Rangers DinoThunder. The 34-year-old filmmaker has made a true tour de force that’s certain to touch audiences everywhere on a deep level. The picture has already become a huge hit in its native country, winning several New Zealand Film Awards. One can only hope North American audiences also embrace The Dark Horse, especially come Oscar season. Just don’t get the film confused with Dark Horse, a recent documentary about a racehorse.