There’s a lot to like about this local comedy, both in the big picture it’s presenting, and in its central performance. As the Hibiscus of the title, Suivai Autagavaia displays natural talent, poise and grace. She shows herself to be adept at both drama and comedy, and she’s a delight to watch. This is all for the good, as the story revolves around her, even though the film’s title contains “Ruthless”, her childhood palagi (European) friend. The film starts as a buddy movie, but it resolves itself around Hibiscus, as she battles to stay true to her mother’s edict to stay away from boys and parties, and concentrate instead on her university studies.
But temptations come along, as several young men are interested in dating Hibiscus. So the story takes us through Hibiscus’ navigation of her own desires and her austere mum’s stewardship. The mum is played by Lafitaga Mafaufau with as grimly set a jaw as you’ll ever see. Her steadfastness is offset by the lighter presence in the house of Grandma, played by Yvonne Maea-Brown.
As we see this dynamic roll out we’re given plenty of insight into some traditional Samoan customs. We see how much authority Hibiscus’ mother holds in the family home (we don’t know what happened to the father) and how daughter treats mother with utmost respect. At times, she sits at her mum’s feet. We see Hibiscus’ cash from her student job is not hers but the whole community’s, as she is required to help pay for weddings and other events.
But not all the customs are strict. Hibiscus and Ruthless cater for a wedding on a shoestring budget, and in a lovely sequence the pair feed the large crowd who are at first unimpressed by the modern looking cuisine – and the size of its portions – but who may change their minds. There’s an energetic and utterly engaging dance sequence during the wedding reception, with one overweight dancer backed by several other, slimmer, entirely more muscle bound young men.
A later dance between Hibiscus and Anthony, one of her suitors, is a superb blend of Samoan and modern ballroom movement, and, quite frankly, puts La La Land to shame.
Credit for all this starts with writer director Stallone Vaiaoga-Ioasa. This attention to cultural detail lends the film a great deal of authenticity. And there is a big feelgood factor in seeing a story with one of this country’s Pacific communities front and centre, even more so as its central young characters are seen succeeding at university.
Films like this reinforce how important it is for storytellers from all of New Zealand’s communities to do their work. I grew up in central Auckland in the 1960’s and 70’s, at a time when many Pacific families lived and worked in the area. I went to primary, intermediate and secondary school with Samoan and Tongan kids, and in the movie’s closing credits I couldn’t help but notice the name of one young man who was clearly from the same family as one of my former classmates. Gives you the warm fuzzies.
Having heaped all this praise on the film, it didn’t completely work for me. At times the comedy sang, and at other times it was forced, and just too plain corny. One of Hibiscus’ suitors is the intelligent, cultured but nerdy Stephen, played by Haanz Fa’avae-Jackson. This character was larger than life by too many degrees. His efforts to offer Hibiscus coffee was, for me, an example of this.
And Ruth, played by Anna-Maree Thomas, had me puzzled for much of the film. Writing a palagi into a Samoan family is a great idea, as is the idea of having the character chime in and speak Samoan from time to time. But in reaching for comic effect it got a bit contrived. I started cringeing a little at Ruth’s continual flambouyant adopting of Samoan gestures.
Still, others in the cinema were laughing at Stephen and Ruth, so many will not share my view. The overplayed aspect of some character did detract from my overall enjoyment of the film, but this is still a local movie to be recommended. Especially if you’ve spent a chunk of your life in Auckland.