Genesis Potini is far and wide most widely known for his amazing chess skills. This, however, isn’t as important as his more important legacy, which is helping and teaching the youth who come from under-served communities. The fact that director and writer James Napier Robertson spent time with the real-life Genesis before he passed away in 2011 and gathered his thoughts on the film gives “The Dark Horse” a bit more authenticity. That Robertson also spends time on the youth Potini supported within the narrative makes it more believable and well-developed than it may have been otherwise.
Genesis (Cliff Curtis) is a brilliant Maori man. His mind is all strategy and analysis when it comes to chess. But his bipolar disorder and lack of family care leads him to be institutionalized. After being released to the care of his brother and biker gang member, Ariki (Wayne Hapi), Genesis finds himself growing closer to his nephew, Mana (James Rolleston), who has the potential to go down the path Ariki has.
Eventually, Genesis finds himself unwelcome in his brother’s home and takes up residence on a cemetery hill. During the day, however, Genesis, who is a kindly man with a warm disposition and kind of like the uncle you never had, finds purpose again by teaching a group of underprivileged kids about the art of chess and life.
Upon first viewing, one might think that “The Dark Horse” is misleading. In a way, it is. By just reading the summary alone, one might also assume that this is a cheap way to make some kind of uplifting film about underprivileged children, but it is far and away so much more than that. While it has its uplifting moments, Robertson makes sure to avoid being preachy about the realities facing the under-served community.
The story isn’t one of pity or a more privileged person waltzing in and making a point to be helpful because they can. This is the story of a man who’s a part of said community, and whose own disorder doesn’t stop him from inspiring optimism in the youth he teaches. The film is elevated by the cast’s strong performances.
Cliff Curtis gives the most powerful of performances. Genesis’ struggles with his disorder and the very real dangers he faces are portrayed in a realistic way and handled respectfully. Another standout performance comes from James Rolleston, who showed much promise when first seen onscreen in “Boy” a few years ago and succeeds in giving a raw portrayal without it being overtaken by an overt amount of angst.
The film could have easily slipped into melodrama territory and become a cliché, but Robertson handles his material in a mature way. Sure, sometimes the script can cave a bit in order to up the stakes and bring in a bit more drama, but it doesn’t allow itself to wallow behind these storytelling walls before breaking free of them. In a lot of ways, the story is just as charismatic and rocky as Genesis’ personality is. The kids in the film are refreshing and the lead-up to the chess tournament is lighthearted, but doesn’t ever stray too far from the potential downward spiral that always seems to be lurking just around the corner.
“The Dark Horse” is moving and pays respect to Genesis’ legacy. Robertson doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the film, but balances it out with childlike energy that Curtis embodies in the lead role. The film concerns itself with giving us a beautiful urban aesthetic and makes it stand out, so that it is as much a part of the narrative as the characters are. Propped up by good storytelling and powerful performances, “The Dark Horse” is uplifting and moving without falling into the usual traps that occur with other films of its kind.
Propped up by good storytelling and powerful performances, "The Dark Horse" is uplifting and moving without falling into the usual traps that occur with other films of its kind.