A young mother living in the squalor of urban New Zealand struggles to keep her family together whilst living under the constant threat of abuse from her drunken, thuggish partner.
Once Were Warriors deliberately contrasts the romantic notions of New Zealand with its grim realities from the very first shot of the film; gang culture, ghettos and racist abuse are as much a fact of life here as anywhere else. Rena Owen puts in a powerful performance as a strong woman enduring horrific attacks both for the sake of her children and because of misplaced loyalty to a man who sees himself as a lovable rogue, but is in fact a vicious, sadistic, misogynist bully. Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell is also very engaging as her teenage daughter who is inevitably exposed to the degradation of a poverty-stricken existence in the big city, and the context of the Maori culture gives the usual gang-banger stereotypes a different spin.
With dreadlocks and bicycle shorts a plenty, Once Were Warriors is very, very nineties, but it’s also a solid urban drama that has actually dated rather better than many of its American counterparts.