Film Reviews

Red, White & Brass

Published June 23, 2023
Those brassy Tongans

Jennifer Lawrence, still considered one of Hollywood’s top drawcards, has appeared in only five films over the past six years. None were especially memorable, but her new effort, No Hard Feelings is a certified career killer. I never thought I’d see a big-name star degrade themselves so comprehensively as Robert De Niro did in Dirty Grandpa (2016), and I still haven’t, but Lawrence has given it her best shot.

In this ill-conceived tale Lawrence is an impoverished girl with a lot of unpaid bills, living in the tourist town of Montaulk, N.Y. She earns her money as an Uber driver, so when her car gets repossessed, her finances are put under strain. Her solution is to answer an advertisement from a wealthy family willing to give a Buick to a young woman who will “date” their introverted teenage son. In brief, it’s the story of a woman who pimps herself out for a car.

If this sounds like an unromantic idea for a rom-com, it only gets worse when we meet all the hideous guys the Lawrence character has already ‘dated’. Are we expected to see her as a new age feminist because she has had sex with a bunch of morons? Her pursuit of the nerdy son is equally unscrupulous. There’s a gratuitous, if heavily blurred, full-frontal scene to add a little titillation.

Although the film is supposed to be funny, it’s so irredeemably vulgar it’s more likely to induce groans than laughs. I’m not inclined towards moralising, but movies like this are symptoms of a country in precipitous moral decline. It’s ugly, it’s stupid, it’s trash, and Lawrence is one of the co-producers.

That’s enough about the Hollywood attraction of the week, there’s more genuine entertainment to be found in the New Zealand feature, Red, White & Brass, which made its Australian debut at the Sydney Film Festival.

Although New Zealand may be the country of origin, this is probably the first Tongan film to get a widespread international release (I could find only one other candidate). All the main characters are members of the Tongan community in Wellington, and much of the dialogue is in the Tongan dialect.

Among the peoples of the Pacific, the chief legacies of colonialism seem to be the Christian religion and contact sports. For the characters in this film, the 2011 Rugby World Cup is nothing short of a religious experience, and when Tonga is set to play France in Wellington, watching on TV is not an option.

The sporting action begins in the local church hall, where shaggy-headed Maka (John-Paul Foliaki), the local minister’s son, is trying to raise funds to get everybody to the game. Maka is a Flash Harry with an unshakable belief in his own talent as a dancer and rapper who wants to be in the thick of everything. To his friends and family he’s a pain in the arse, who embraces the fun stuff but avoids the boring chores.

Yet Maka is also a positive thinker with a big heart who believes the entire Church group needs to see their Tongan footy heroes. He convinces his clean-cut cousin, Veni (Dimitrius Schuster-Koloamatangi), that he shouldn’t sneak off to buy a ticket for himself, leaving the rest of them in the cold. Maka’s first attempt to get to the game ends in disaster, when he buys a bunch of phoney tickets from Terence (Haanz Fa’avae-Jackson), a would-be Tongan ‘gangsta’. Luckily his formidable mum goes around to recover the money and pull the gangstas into line. All power to the matriarch!

By now the genuine tickets have sold out, but Maka isn’t giving up. Learning that the Wellington City Council is looking for pre-match entertainers, he comes up with the crazy idea that he and his church group can form a brass band in one month, learn to play the instruments, practice their moves, perform on the big stage, and see the match for free.

To achieve this miracle he has to convince the good-natured lady from the Council (Hariata Moriarty), sneak the rehearsals past his disapproving father, and find a way to put his personal stamp on the show. Allowing for a few wrinkles in the plot, that’s basically it. There’s no real suspense, no love interest (apart from the love of rugby), and only the smallest hint of villiany. The happy ending may be taken for granted.

The main source of appeal is that Red, White & Brass is a completely joyous film. It shows us the inner workings of a close-knit community, a group of people devoted to the church and respectful of their elders, who will commit to an impossible dream if it allows them to see a rugby match. It may seem a trivial desire, but there’s no denying the passionate feelings the game inspires. As most of us are prey to our own sporting enthusiasms – First Test at Edgbaston, anyone? – it’s easy to sympathise with Maka and his gang.

Damon Fepulea’i, in his directorial debut, has created a film that has the same appealing amateurism as the brass band itself. Most of the actors are non-professionals who make no attempt to deliver the lines in a convincing manner, but this only adds to the charm. The entire production has a handmade feel that is entirely appropriate for a portrait of a community in which people put the group before the individual. Even Maka’s show-off tendencies are ameliorated by his determination that everyone should get tickets to the game.

Perhaps what’s most surprising is that a film can be so wholesome and still be appealing. It’s a huge contrast with No Hard Feelings, in which the characters and scenarios are uniformly repellent. Sex is nowhere to be found in Red, White & Brass, while the entire plot of the Jennifer Lawrence movie revolves around the actress’s presumed sex appeal. In purely aesthetic terms, I’d take two minutes of Hariata Moriarty in the role of a minor bureaucrat over two hours of Jennifer Lawrence, playing the sex kitten. Where the Americans have subsided into decadence, the Kiwis are keeping it fresh, reaping the benefits of all those years spent worshipping the benevolent gods of rugby.

Red, White & Brass

Directed by Damon Fepulea’i

Written by Damon Fepulea’i & Halaifonua Finau

Starring: John-Paul Foliaki, Dimitrius Schuster-Koloamatangi, Haanz Fa’avae-Jackson, Andy Faiaoga, Mikey Falesiu, Lupeti Finau, Tevita Finau, Valeti Finau, Hariata Moriaty

NZ, PG, 85 mins


No Hard Feelings

Directed by Gene Stupnitsky

Written by Gene Stupnitzy & John Philiips

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Andrew Barth Feldman, Laura Benanti, Matthew Broderick, Natalie Morales, Scott MacArthur, Ebon Moss-Bacharach, Kyle Mooney

USA, MA 15+, 103 mins


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 24 June, 2023