Reviewed by Simon Sweetman

The Map Reader, written, shot, directed and edited by Harold Brodie, is an underwhelming 90 minutes. At the 12-minute mark it begins to feel like a short film idea that is about to be stretched, unconvincingly, out to feature length. That may sound like a cliché view towards some low-budget New Zealand films, but in this case I feel it is on the money, unlike the rather pointless script which attempts to be arty in its delivery of a bog-standard coming-of-age drama, starting off clumsy and climbing, with a few stumbles, towards portentousness.

We watch as 16-year-old Michael, the map reader of the film’s title (that’s not a metaphor by the way, he just reads maps, loves them, figures you can go anywhere if you can read a map) deals with his alcoholic mother (played with some conviction by Rebecca Gibney) and knocks around with some wayward school friends.

In a stunt piece of casting to match the mad leaps in how the film moves about, the six-year-old Michael is played by a light-skinned Ginga, emerging from the tween chrysalis to become a dark-haired half-caste. The acting of the young boy is so bad that I divided my time while he was on screen shifting uncomfortably in my seat and marveling that the character presumably overcomes mental retardation in his teens and this – like so much of the white space on the script-pages and floating around the film – is just left for the audience to work out and feel pleased about.

I get no pleasure laughing at how bad this film was; but it really felt like the sort of movie that would be lapped up by the film’s cast and crew, their families and NZ film industry sycophants; but no one else. This was a point I was eager to discuss with the two other people in the theatre during the screening I attended but they left before the credits. Thank god we didn’t car-pool.

Paul Ubana Jones’ music is easily the best thing in the film and I say that as a fan of the man’s music, but must also point out that while it works well in the early scenes of the film it is not purpose-written score, rather Ubana Jones has re-recorded a selection of his songs, 20-year-old music is re-cast for this contemporary tale.

In fact that’s a huge problem with this film – the filmmaker’s idea of how teens operate.Presumably this is a vaguely contemporary tale, so maybe Brodie could have listened to some music from the last 10 years, observed teen culture and attempted to sculpt characters with a third dimension rather than colouring within the lines of a two-dimensional character-sketch cliché.

Michael has dalliances with a tom-boy from down the road and an older blind woman that he and his mates spy on.

And beyond that, nothing much happens. Oh, there’s lots of running. Characters run towards beaches – a crucial way to secure NZ film funding – and it is perfectly sequenced with the loping loops of acoustic guitar.

Here’s a wee note for the filmmaker for any future features (and I really hope that doesn’t happen, as sitting through this film felt like a 90 minute montage of NZ’s very worst in trying-too-hard dramatic television): if the film title does not have the word ‘run’ in it then don’t have your characters running willy-nilly. Run Lola Run and Run Fatboy Run both had heaps of running in them – but you will notice that both of those films featured the word ‘run’ in the titles twice. This film is called The Map Reader, so perhaps the main character could have read a heap of maps? Oh, that’s right. He did. Riveting stuff.

I am baffled that this film even thinks it has an audience. We have a mother that drinks and an absentee father. Down the lawn a bit (just a quick hand-held camera accompanied run through some long grass) we have the father of another character that sells pot and gives his daughter the occasional slap. Her mother can’t protect her because she is dead; a nugget that pans out around the 83-minute mark. Presumably this is Issue-Filmmaking and any audience is supposed to look inwardly. Well I did that and you know what I saw? A funeral. Yes, I died inside while watching this hackneyed excuse for a film.

Simon Sweetman’s ‘notes’ continue as a regular fixture on The Lumière Reader throughout 2009.