‘Coming Home in the Dark’ ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎: Sundance 2021

“Coming Home in the Dark” is a relentlessly dark film featuring some Maori actors and directed by James Ashcroft who also co-wrote with Eli Kent. This is the first feature-length film directed by New Zealander Ashcroft, who is affiliated with the Ngati Kahu  and Nga Puhi tribes.

Based on a short story by Owen Marshall, the film begins with a family of four, Alan “Hoagie” Hoaganraad (Erik Thomson) and his Maori wife, Jill (Miriama MCDowell) and their teenage sons Maika (Billy Paratene) and Jordan (Frankie Paratene) driving to a desolate spot to hike and have a picnic. The boys are pushing each other’s buttons in the backseat; they don’t seem excited about where they’re going.  They probably think they have better places to go and would rather be somewhere else.  The parents are justifiably annoyed but soon enough, they’ll all be wishing they had never come.

Cinematographer Matt Henley frames the beauty of this isolated spot with deceptively serene soft light. Having settled down near the water for a picnic, their familial outing takes an ominous turn. Two drifters appear and completely ignore all the social niceties. The talkative Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and brooding Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) hover too close and they seem particularly focused on the adults. The two men have guns and when a van with surf boards appear on the other side of the still water, Hoagie and Jill decide to pretend to be a happy group and their sons, no longer bickering follow their lead. After the van leaves, Mandrake intones, “When you look back, this will be the moment you’ll wish you’d done something.”

Hoagie is the passive victim at first, but Jill become enraged. The decisions both make will have repercussions and this tale of a terrorized family

James Ashcroft, director of Coming Home in the Dark, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Stan Alley.
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who are forced to drive these strangers “home” in the dark will not have a happy ending. Although the program notes there is “extreme violence and gore,” this film is not a gore-fest. “Coming Home in the Dark” does have a social message and Hoagie will have to reckon with ghosts of his past. In some ways, the film is an indictment against the broken social system and its failure to protect its vulnerable population and instead, breeding brutality that can’t escape the confines of a small island. 

“Coming Home in the Dark” seems destined to be a film that can be used as an example of what not to do during a desperate situation. “Coming Home in the Dark” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on 30 January 2021. 


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