A Maori man with a lovely wife and two beautiful children faces his biggest challenge when he finally decides he needs to come out to his family as a gay man. Based on the book "Nights in the Gardens of Spain" by Witi Ihimaera ("Whale Rider"), "Kawa" opens with Kawa (Calvin Tuteao) and his wife Annabelle (Nathalie Boltt) already separated. Living in his own apartment, he is taking some time to figure things out - things he has yet to reveal to his wife and family.
Meanwhile, he is having a relationship with a younger actor named Chris (Dean O’Gorman) and frequenting a local bathhouse. Yet night after night he finds himself in front of his house, longingly gazing at the family he’s slowly losing.
To make matters worse, his father Hamiora (George Henare) is not only retiring from his job, but also handing over his role as patriarch of the entire family. In Maori tradition this means the responsibility of watching over the entire extended family will be handed down to his son. This honor is bestowed in a small ceremony that causes Kawa even more confusion. When his secret is witnessed by his mother Grace (Vicky Haughton) her reaction is, to put it mildly, not so good. Suddenly Kawa is at risk of not only losing his own family, but his mother and father as well.
Directed by Katie Wolfe, "Kawa" is a beautifully made film with memorable characters and an effective script by Kate McDermott. And by adding the Maori traditions into the mix, they’ve made a familiar story stand out. Calvin Tuteao commands the screen as the confused and tormented Kawa, and he is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast headlined by Boltt and Haughton. The characters here are genuine and sincere, allowing the story to come to life in a refreshingly honest way.
The only real flaw in the film is that, at a scant hour and fifteen minutes, this is a film that could have stood to be longer. Once Kawa’s secret is revealed, there are key scenes that seem to be missing. Clearly, Annabelle isn’t happy with the news that Kawa has been living a lie for so many years and her reaction is violent and upsetting. But after both are distracted by a near tragic event that befalls one of their children, suddenly the two are making nice on the beach with the conversation of how they got there completely missing. There are also some loose ends between Kawa and his son that could have been explored, and a final scene between Kawa and his father is touching, but the motivation for it remains a mystery.
All in all, "Kawa" is a well-made film that has enough originality in it that those of us who have seen a hundred coming-out stories will still be entertained and moved. Had it gone a little deeper, it might have been a classic.
Screening at The Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival