In a work that is both unexpectedly raw and beautifully tender, director Gaysorn Thavat’s debut feature film, The Justice of Bunny King, follows the largely tragic life of its title character, played by the great Essie Davis (The Babadook). Bunny’s primary source of income is change she collects washing car windows on a stretch of road in Auckland, New Zealand. For reasons that aren’t made clear initially, Bunny does not have her two kids living with her, but she is trying desperately to get them back, something that can’t happen until she has a permanent residence. She lives with her sister Sylvia (Darien Takle) and her relatively new husband Bevan (Erroll Shand) rent free, but with the understanding that she’s basically their maid and kids’ babysitter. The outlook for her ever getting her kids back is bleak, but she’s working to save money and find a place in a tough New Zealand housing market.
Bunny’s goal is to have a place where she can throw her developmentally challenged daughter Shannon (Amelie Baynes) a proper birthday party, but first her new place has to be approved by a social worker. Bunny is only allowed supervised visits with her children, including older teen son Reuben (Angus Stevens), who seems truly disgusted by the whole situation and is much happier with the foster family the pair are currently living with. Bunny is so desperate to make this party happen that she doesn’t hesitate to lie and break every rule to see that it does, including faking her address and stealing from a nearby store to get presents.
While the system is clearly stacked against Bunny, she also makes a series of very bad decisions that make her predicament worse by the hour and seem fueled by anger-management issues and perhaps even mental instability. One day when she returns to her sister’s house after a day of work, she spots what she believes is her brother-in-law putting the moves on her teenage niece Tonya (Thomasin McKenzie, Last Night in Soho). Knowing that confronting Bevan about it will likely get her kicked out of her one stable address, she does it anyway and predictably gets tossed, forcing her to move in with the family of one of her fellow squeegee jockeys.
Eventually Bunny takes the underage girl out of the home, and the film concludes with the two of them heading to a showdown with authorities in Bunny’s quest to have this ill-fated birthday party, which quickly escalates into a showdown with law enforcement. Davis’s performance here is nothing short of astonishing, and the rage and frustration in her eyes jumps off the screen in such a way that we both empathize with her situation and fear for whatever her next move might be. Director Thavat and screenwriter Sophie Henderson also include some fascinating details in Bunny’s life that make her journey all the more fascinating and tragic. Her getting a new, dressier suit of clothes makes people look at her completely differently, giving her a confidence that allows her to more easily con them. An exchange with a real estate agent sets into motion a series of events that help out Bunny’s cause for a time, until things take a turn for the much worse.
It’s sometimes difficult to observe people’s behavior in a film in which we can anticipate the downward spiral that they are setting into motion, but if you can handle that kind of anxiety, The Justice of Bunny King might be exactly the movie you need to see. The film movies briskly through Bunny’s various obstacles and life choices with an authenticity that gives the work an inherent emotional grip that is tough to shake, and with Davis at the center of this life storm, the film is elevated into something close to greatness. Seek this one out if you want something that is both hauntingly familiar and utterly unique.
The film opens in select theaters on Friday, September 23 and will be available via VOD on September 30.
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