The Justice of Bunny King

Bunny King (Essie Davis) walks home after a long day squeegeeing car windshields at a busy intersection. She's made a couple of bucks. She puts the money into a big glass jar of coins and hides it in her closet. Then she gets undressed, taking off her bra. The bra's underwire has pierced through the frayed fabric. That underwire would have been cutting into her skin all day. But look at the jar of coins. You could get a second-hand bra for less than 20 bucks, but Bunny King doesn't even have that. A new bra is a luxury she cannot afford.

Effective storytelling is usually grounded in detail. "The Justice of Bunny King," an amazing directorial debut from Gaysorn Thavat, is full of details like the bra. Details bypass condescension, and so many films about what is referred to as "the working class" stink with condescension. The recent "Holler" was a notable exception, as are the films of Eliza Hittman. It's refreshing when you don't sense the actors are only in the location for six weeks, with Los Angeles on speed dial right offscreen. Everything in "The Justice of Bunny King"—the clothes, the car, the decor, Bunny's sharpened eyeliner pencil, the plastic cake box, the worn-out bra—hasn't been carefully placed in the frame. They were there before the camera started rolling, and they will be thereafter.

Bunny's kids, Ruben (Angus Stevens) and Shannon (Amelie Baynes), have been taken away from her, for reasons not revealed in full until near the film's end. The kids are in foster care, and Bunny is allowed short visits, all while a social worker hovers on the sidelines. Ruben is a teenager, and wary of his mother. Shannon is a small disabled child, clinging to Bunny, but young enough to call her foster mom "Mommy" too. Bunny cannot regain custody of her kids until she has a job and adequate housing, but how can she find adequate housing with just a jar of coins? In the meantime, she crashes with her sister Sylvia (Darien Takle), Sylvia's husband Bevan (Erroll Shand), and Bunny's niece Tonya (Thomasin McKenzie). There's tension. Bunny cooks and cleans, feeling like she is imposing on the family. There's a limit to her sister's generosity. Then, one day, Bunny witnesses something, something terrible. She calls it out, shattering the already fragile family dynamic. Bunny is tossed out of the house, her stuff (except for the coin jar) dumped out the window.

It's obvious from Bunny's face that she is running on fumes: there's hysteria at play, an urgent and off-putting energy. People recoil from her. She can be a little bit scary, especially when she is angry or desperate. But her life is desperate. Even having time to think is a luxury. The social worker sets her up with a "dress for success" consultant, crucial to making a good impression when looking for an apartment or a job. Bunny staggers down the sidewalk in white platform sandals and a tailored blue suit, trying on a competent and confident personality. But people eventually see through it to the raw need underneath. When cornered or frustrated, Bunny makes big bold choices, and many of these choices are beyond the pale, putting her into a state from which she cannot retreat. Eventually, Tonya runs away from home to join up with her outlaw aunt, trailing along as Bunny barges into social workers' offices, filling out forms with impatience bordering on fury. Tonya has her own trauma but being with Bunny is better than being at home.

Sophie Henderson ("Fantail," "Baby Done") wrote the screenplay, which is somehow taut and chaotic at the same time. Bunny's frantic energy is woven into the DNA of the script. There's a dedication to realism: a sequence where Bunny stays with the big boisterous family of her squeegee pal Semu (Lively Nili) is particularly well-observed: the elasticity of the family, their calm acceptance of her presence, but then, awfully, the moment Bunny realizes it's time to move on. A long sequence at the end involving Bunny, Tonya and a social worker (the excellent Tanea Heke) catapults the film into an almost "Dog Day Afternoon" arena.

The aural texture of this world has been given pride of place by sound designer Bruno Barrett-Garnier. It's not pumped up artificially, but great care has been given to sounds: Venetian blinds snapping shut, the violent scratch of Scotch tape pulled off the dispenser, a gas-guzzling car roaring to life, even the agonizing sound of the phone ringing. Phone calls are never good in "The Justice of Bunny King." A couple of well-placed songs by The Mess Hall and 4 Non Blondes provide the only respite in the film's emotionally fraught atmosphere.

The storyline, of a desperate working-class woman trying to pull herself up by her bootstraps, never giving up, even against tremendous odds, is well-worn and familiar. These stories are usually built to be inspirational. Cue swelling strings. "The Justice of Bunny King" allows for ambivalence and complexity, and, in fact, wouldn't be the movie it is without those things. It's not that Bunny is a bad person, it's that you can see the social worker's hesitation to allow visitation, you can understand why Ruben keeps his distance from his mother. He's been burned too many times. 

Bunny is unpredictable, and she is capable of great violence, you know that just by looking at her. As the social worker reminds her repeatedly, it is their job to keep her children "safe." Bunny crumbles, setting off sparks of rage: "You mean safe from me." Well, yes. That is what they mean. In a cruel irony, she did try to "keep them safe," and that's why she's in this predicament in the first place. Her commitment to Tonya is not just a replacement for her kids. Tonya is in danger and must be saved. Bunny was the only one brave enough to confront this.

Thomasin McKenzie showed an eerie calm maturity in Debra Granik's 2018 film "Leave No Trace," where McKenzie played a role similar to that of Tonya: she trails along after her father, fearful of what will happen to him, because she loves him but also because she is a child, she has nowhere else to go. Tonya is trapped. Her wild aunt Bunny offers her a lawless escape. Tonya can perceive Bunny's issues, but at least Bunny isn't tricky and duplicitous. McKenzie is such a centered young actress, easily tapping into Tonya's fear and trauma, but also her hunger for survival. In her own quiet way, she's as bold as Bunny. If anyone is going to come out of this with at least a shot at making a good life, it's Tonya.

Essie Davis embraces complexity, as seen in her towering performance as the insomniac mother in "The Babadook" or the weird wealthy Helen in last year's "Nitram." Even her performance as the mother of a dying teenager in "Babyteeth" is complex, Davis emanating a deadpan (and very funny) resignation to the absurdity of life. In "The Justice of Bunny King," Davis' face, at times, looks like it's being flayed alive, pared down to the bone, her emotions quivering on the surface of her skin. Davis does not play Bunny as an inspirational figure. What she does play, with everything she's got, is Bunny's objective: to throw a birthday party for Shannon. Bunny may not be able to find a house or get a job, and she can't get her kids back, but she can throw a party for Shannon, and no one can stop her. By the end of the film, Bunny has been put through the wringer, and so have we. Davis outdoes herself.

Now playing in theaters. 

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