Director: Hamish Bennett
Cast: Marshall Napier, Cohen Holloway, Rachel House
Ross can afford to be grouchy because Beth is chirpy. The 60-something dairy farmer can afford to grunt at breakfast and growl at dinner because his long-time wife balances him out. He likes it when she calls him a grumpy shit; he responds by blurting out a missing number of her incomplete Sudoku puzzle. She likes it that he has more in common with the cows he milks than the humans he (reluctantly) meets. Not a sweet word is said, but there’s an undercurrent of loyalty and love – the silent kind that’s accumulated, not the loud kind that’s expressed. You can sense that they’ve probably never been to mainland New Zealand. They’ve never had to – their forested town in the Northernmost region of the island nation is small enough to be nowhere and big enough to be anywhere.
Their adult son, Bruce, lives in the adjoining garage. He is back after a failed big-city stint; he isn’t a very good farmer, but proudly works at the local dump. He scavenges quite a bit: Maybe he feels an emotional connect with discarded trash that can still be used. There’s some hurt in his eyes – the silent kind that’s suppressed, not the loud kind that’s romanticized.
What’s remarkable about Bellbird is how, through passages of solemnity and sadness and dull dramedy, it hints at the bygone chemistry and history of the family before the film’s images
Primary school teacher Hamish Bennett’s Bellbird opens with Ross and Beth. They are a film of their own – comfortable, old, tender, a twilight couple unafraid of crippling co-dependence. Bruce is a separate film – young, shy, slow-witted but painfully sincere with the local community. Each might have made for a worthy ode to the pragmatic proximity of rural New Zealand. As it turns out, their stories do exist. Two of the director’s short films are called Ross and Beth (2015) and The Dump (2011), inspired by unassuming people from his own childhood in the region. The storyteller in him merges these worlds. Everything I’ve written so far is derived from only the first ten minutes of Bellbird – Beth dies in the fourth scene. This is an event that exposes the two lost men of the house to each other; the medium between them is gone, and all that remains is a lifetime of unlettered words.
Bellbird is a moving and quietly observational portrait of the filmmaker’s rustic roots. It plays out like a film that shows patience with protagonists who are not used to being the film – a background abruptly pulled to the fore. Ross turns to his farm with a vengeance to block out old memories, while Bruce derives all his hobbies – riding a ladies bike, playing the ukelele – from the rubbish he scavenges through. They are aided, unsolicitedly, by people who become characters for them: An eager 11-year-old neighbour (a cute Kahukura Retimana), Bruce’s wryly perceptive boss (“You two must have some scintillating conversations at home,” Connie remarks to a monosyllabic Bruce) and a socially challenged vet who is truly passionate about sticking his hands up pregnant cows (“vagina issues can be addressed through the anus,” he intellectualizes). They might seem like the crowd-pleasers of the narrative, but they replicate the effect of a quirky background score instead. In their heads, they aren’t supporting the two grieving men as much as filling their void with vacant voices.
Bellbird trusts us to locate the integrity of honest labour – both physical and emotional – in the grunts and growls of its weathered occupants
What’s remarkable about Bellbird is how, through passages of solemnity and sadness and dull dramedy, it hints at the bygone chemistry and history of the family before the film’s images. It paints a picture of Beth and her influence without resorting to flashbacks, and highlights the magnitude of loss through the numbness of their routine.
Marshall Napier is devastating as old Ross – a man who must express everything by being inexpressive. He is sentimentally stunted, but you can sense he wants to reach out to his son instead of playing the gruff and tough dad. You sense that a breakdown is round the corner, and you hope it’s in the wild, in a space where his sobs can double up as one of many distinct primal groans that define the jungle soundscape. Cohen Holloway has a Joel Edgerton-ish slowness about him as Bruce. He wants nothing to do with the family acres, but also seems to understand that farming is a physical metaphor for familyhood. It requires hard work, nurturing, tending and even tough love. It was Beth who humanized their farming – she was the soul, the missing link in a chain that had otherwise monetized and desensitized the concept of raising animals. But without Beth, it feels like a business – a trade that Ross is now struggling to stay afloat, and one that he hopes an inadequate Bruce “inherits” for the sake of succession. Selling becomes a keyword, money suddenly becomes a priority.
In another film, one of the characters might have harnessed the essence of the above paragraph through a searing monologue. A cry for help, a dramatic call to arms. But Bellbird trusts us to locate the integrity of honest labour – both physical and emotional – in the grunts and growls of its weathered occupants. Or, on better days, in the ringing-bell-like call of its homegrown songbirds.