Mild, mellow, and as life-affirming as a soft fall of springtime New Zealand rain, Hamish Bennett’s charming if overfamiliar debut feature “Bellbird” is a fondly bittersweet tribute to the rural Northland of the director’s childhood. A portrait of a taciturn farmer father and his dutiful but indecisive son as they try to find a means of communication in the aftermath of bereavement, the film skirts dangerously close to indie dramedy cliché at times. But some astute, understated writing and warm, witty supporting turns rescue the story from tweeness, while the fresh-faced camerawork of DP Grant McKinnon and the deep wellspring of affection that Bennett clearly has for every one of his flawed but fiercely decent characters make it.
Long-married couple Beth (Annie Whittle) and Ross (Marshall Napier) live in the upper part of New Zealand’s North Island. They have a well-worn routine whereby during the milking or the mucking-out of stalls, Beth will natter away good-naturedly about farm business or her new solo for the local choir, while Ross will grunt occasionally, pretend to be aggravated and turn up the radio to drown her out. It’s not real irritation, though — witness the small moments of loving exchange over the morning sudoku puzzle — it’s more a simple lapse into the comfortable yin-yang roles they’ve learned to play.
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Indeed Ross is so curmudgeonly and gruff, while Beth is such a sunny representation of one of those older women with a simple knack for happiness that the rules of the later-life indie drama dictate that something bad must happen to her, because otherwise their stability is such that Ross would have no need to grow or change, and we wouldn’t get to have a movie. And so Beth dies suddenly, and Ross must work out what to do with himself in the silence that follows.
Their equally stoic, also grieving son Bruce (Cohen Holloway from “Top of the Lake”) moves back to the farm to lend a hand, while still working his usual job as a sorter at the local dump, which is run by Connie (a delightfully earthy, shrewd turn from Taika Waititi regular Rachel House) for whom Bruce shyly carries a torch. But Bruce is trying to find a way to tell Ross that he has no aptitude for farming and doesn’t want to take over when Ross retires.
Local kid Marley (newcomer Kahukura Retimana) is at the opposite end of the spectrum: Naturally fascinated by the mucky, physical business of dairy farming, he has to overcome Ross’ reluctance to let him help out around the place. Portly veterinarian Clem (Stephen Tamarapa) offers light comic relief and rounds out the small cast of quirky but real characters who help and hinder Ross’ recovery from the shock of Beth’s passing. Meanwhile, the weeks become months and the farming seasons turn like the wheel that “Bellbird” steadfastly refuses to reinvent.
The biggest surprise Bennett has in store is that while all the ingredients are in place for a tidily simplistic finale, he opts for a less convenient, and therefore more truthfully irresolute ending. It feels right, because “Bellbird” is not about grand revelations or startling discoveries. Instead, the film — named after an avian species indigenous to the region, which Captain Cook reportedly described as having a song “like small bells, exquisitely tuned” — is written in the terse poetry of inarticulate men struggling to process the depth of feeling that their silences and hesitations contain.
It’s a tiny tale not of new beginnings but hopeful continuations, of how a family (both related and unrelated) that once organized around a vital and beloved central individual can find a way instead to line up around its memory of her. In a touching moment, Beth’s choirmates gather at her grave to sing her happy birthday, and it feels like a sweet, heartbroken encapsulation of the film’s simple, comforting melody: The notes it hits may not be new, but they are plangent and pleasant as small bells, exquisitely tuned.