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‘We Were Dangerous’ Review: Teenage Girls Rebel In A ’50s-Set Coming-Of-Age Story – SXSW

We Were Dangerous begins so strongly and so confidently that it promises to take a grim but familiar period movie trope — the victimization of vulnerable young women in an authoritarian, male-dominated, post-war Christian world — and turn it inside out, mining it for deadpan, absurdist comedy instead of political outrage and focusing on the unexpectedly deep and moving friendships that can be made even in the darkest of situations. Frustratingly, it never quite comes together as the wry, subversive coming-of-age movie that it might have been, but the performances are powerful enough in Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu’s debut that its emotional heft is surprisingly indelible.

Initially narrated by the formidable Matron (Rima Te Wiata), this 1954-set film tells the story of Nellie (Erana James) and Daisy (Manaia Hall), both attendees at a New Zealand school for incorrigible delinquent girls. Matron thinks that her charges have little to offer society, believing that her country’s institutions and educational facilities “are now the front line for saving the uncultivated mind” and that all these girls can ever do is get married and dream of shop work. Nellie and Daisy beg to differ, and eschewing Matron’s clarion call — “Christianize, civilize, assimilate” — they attempt to escape with a pregnant classmate.

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It does not go according to plan. Nellie and Daisy are caught, but the other girl is hospitalized. To avoid a scandal, Matron is packed off to start afresh on a remote island, a former leper colony, on the basis that “if [it] can contain leprosy, it can probably manage a few girls on heat.” On the way over, a mysterious new girl, Louisa (Nathalie Morris), joins them, fascinating the other girls, who have been told they amount to nothing but society’s misfits (“Waifs, strays, vagrants, whores, sexual delinquents — that’s technically different from whores,” Matron tells the sea captain that takes them there, all well within their earshot). Louisa is an exceptional case, however, as we will find out later.

On the island, through Matron’s voice-over, we start to find out who the girls are and why they’re there, but, over time, the most fascinating part of the story turns out to be why Matron is there. A Māori woman raised as a lost girl in circumstances much like this herself, she is desperately perpetuating a cycle of abuse (she almost admits it herself, saying, “Māori people find it hard to live Christian lives because we heard about the word of God so late”). She is so committed to the concept of doing right by her white Christian paymasters that she falls in with a horrific plan to sterilize the girls, “Stupid women love to procreate,” she’s told and, tragically, she convinces herself that she believes it.

This is where the wheels start to come off and the film effectively splits in two; having hinted that Matron might be the real subject of the story, that line of inquiry is abruptly abandoned to resume focus on the girls, those being Nellie and Daisy, who with their new “cousin” (a Māori term of endearment) Louisa, decide that a line has been crossed and decide to strike back. After such an effective setup, We Were Dangerous now becomes an escape movie, rushing to a climax that uses flashbacks to clarify things we’ve only just seen, on an island that has only one indigenous occupant, in a film that isn’t even 90 minutes.

By the end, the director’s experience as an actor and theatre maker is probably what shines through the strongest here, since the casting carries it to the finish line even if the story itself doesn’t quite have the legs — the chemistry between Te Waita, James, Hall, and Morris is the motor here. She also handles issues of class, sexuality and race with tact and sensitivity, all within the confines of a period movie, which isn’t so easy to do. Which is why, after it all plays out, our thoughts are not so much with the youngsters as with Matron. They have their whole lives ahead of them, but Matron only has her past, and her violent need to convert and control is what’s left, tantalizingly and troublingly, to the imagination.

Title: We Were Dangerous
Festival: SXSW (Narrative Feature Competition)
Director: Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu
Screenwriter: Maddie Dai
Cast: Rima Te Wiata, Erana James, Nathalie Morris, Manaia Hall
Sales agent: WME
Running time: 1 hr 22 min

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