A White Tank Top Movie Review
Not all of us know our fathers from the distant sound of his gun going off, but Llewellyn Karena says, “that’s Dad!” after hearing the crack of a rifle in the first scene of This Way of Life.
When Peter Karena arrives back home it’s hard to know where to look — there’s the pile of deer with, in the words of another child, “their faces cut off,” and Peter himself, who is laughably good-looking (the closest comparison I can come up with is Val Kilmer as Madmartigan in Willow). Peter quickly dispenses what has to be the tagline for the film: “What do I do for a living? I live for a living.”
Read the full review after the jump.
Peter lives with his indomitable wife Colleen and their six children, all under the age of 11, in the Ruahine region of New Zealand (the screensaver scenery includes jungly mountains, pure blue rivers, wide grasslands and white sand beaches). They find the hardships of rural life are superseded by its freedoms, like allowing their toddlers to ride bareback through the country. Colleen’s words, “we’ve always talked to them about safety,” are accompanied by a shot of fearless 7-year-old Aurora galloping on a massive stallion and audience gasps. Also, living in the Karena clan involves far more nude cliff diving than we have in my family.
Filmmakers Thomas and Barbara Burstyn do well to let their subjects’ story tell itself. They avoid White Tank Top documentary pitfall #1 by having no over-explanative narrator or inter-titling. There’s blessedly little voiceover except by Llewellyn, who pithily keeps things to a sentence or two.
While Peter’s adoptive father is malevolently bent on ruining his son, This Way of Life does not spend much time dwelling on misfortune — significant challenges pass through like New Zealand’s torrential downpours. While offering heaps of practical advice to his kids (I should now be able to sharpen a knife and skin a deer just from watching), Peter is also deeply focused on how to be a good parent. He says wisely, “You can’t take back how you’ve treated people.” We can’t know if Peter is always fair with his children but he certainly is in every moment of this film.
Subjects that might normally warrant an entire narrative or reality TV series (miscarriage, devastating house fire, mass horse theft, having six young kids) flow together in 84 quick minutes. The Karenas are always soldiering on with smiles on their faces (I noticed Peter and Colleen smile even when angry). When Llewellyn mentions, “Dad found us a shed to live in,” the group is happy to be camping out. Later, after moving into a larger house with many rooms, Colleen recalls the shed almost wistfully. All the doors in the new place hurt family togetherness, she explains, breaking into surprising tears.
As much as he has a profession, Peter is a horse trader. In one tense sequence, he and Llewellyn are transferring a line of horses along a narrow trail on the edge of a cliff. When one mare loses her footing, Peter is forced to cut it out of the line and send the animal over the cliff. Where I would need to be helicoptered out and put in hospice care for months from the stress, Peter steps forward. He carefully cuts and reties the ropes to secure the surviving horses in a quiet metaphor of moving on that’s worthy of Cormac McCarthy.
The filmmakers also had some fortuitous combinations where the action on screen complimented Peter’s speeches perfectly. As he discusses his reluctant relationship with capitalism and land “ownership,” his dog Coco begins to furiously dig up a rabbit hole. Peter interrupts his impromptu analysis of Adam Smith to call off the dog and save the bunny (which puts in his large coat pocket and later presents to his kids).
In my favorite sequence, Peter sits on a hillside, next to Llewellyn, telling a long story of his own father’s assholishness when the boy spots a missing horse. For a moment, Peter can’t believe it and grabs the binoculars. When he sees the bay with his own eyes and realizes his son was right, the joy is palpable. They go down and get the horse together.