We’re all familiar with this type of story: An inspiring mentor goes above and beyond to help keep a young person off the streets. How The Dark Horse differs from similar based-on-a-true-story dramas like Remember the Titans and Freedom Writers is the deeply personal focus on the mentor’s own family struggles and mental illness.
The Dark Horse tells the story of Genesis Potini, an incredibly talented chess player in New Zealand who also suffers from bipolar disorder. After being released from a mental hospital, Gen (Cliff Curtis) is sent to live with his brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi), whose house doubles as home base for a violent Maori gang. Gen begins to teach a group of at-risk kids how to play chess, while at the same time, Ariki is having his teenage son Mana (James Rolleston) brutally hazed before he can join the gang. When Mana is inspired to join Gen’s chess club and break away from his criminal upbringing, the painful tension between the two brothers is laid bare.
The Dark Horse is loaded with heavy subject matter, but it’s engrossing and sure to make moviegoers recoil, cry, and even laugh on occasion. Cliff Curtis’ performance as the middle-aged, bipolar chess teacher searching desperately for acceptance of himself and those around him is raw and often heartbreaking.
When it was originally released in its native New Zealand in 2014, The Dark Horse swept the major categories at the New Zealand Film Awards, and has gone on to rack up even more accolades from various film festivals since. Now it’s finally arrived in the U.S., where it’s primed to garner even more praise. Although some cloying clichés and the dragging runtime keep it from being a flawless game, The Dark Horse still manages to pull out a checkmate. B+