I don't know where to start. When I'm asked of my favorite movie ever, this is ALWAYS the first to come to mind. This is one of the finest movies I've ever seen, and I've seen too many to count.
Once Were Warriors is, at its most stripped, about a woman named Beth and her struggle to just do what's best for her family. She is of Maori heritage, New Zealand's sort of Native Americans. Culture is a proud and powerful aspect of the movie, as Beth's strengths lie in her devotion to her family and her heritage. But that is little comfort, as her daughter is struggling to accept adulthood, her youngest son is heading towards juvenile detention, and her oldest son is fast on his way to joining a brutal gang. Worst of all, her husband Jake is a heavy drinker.
The film excels at painting everybody in full 3 dimensions. Each of her kids are troubled, but they all have fierce love and respect for their mother. The gang is cruel to the oldest son, but at the same time embraces him. The juvenile detention center separates the youngest son from his only home, but instills in him a pride in his ancestry. And Jake himself is a beast, a man built like a tank who will destroy you with anything available should you spill his beer...but somehow he also comes across as loving Beth. Sometimes.
The film follows Beth as she does her best to hold the family together even while the various problems tear them apart. At the center is Jake's drinking and further carelessness of his family's dissipation. While Beth's answer is to nurture and aid her children, Jake insists it's best to drink away the problems and quit being so "soft" on the kids. And we watch, through it all, as the family spirals further apart. Near the end, after seeing both happy and horrible things happen to each of the characters, we are jarred by a terrible tragedy. Beth and Jake both deal with it uniquely, as she draws once again on the tremendous power of family and human spirit, while Jake deals with it his own way. The last 15 minutes of the film keep us in suspense as we wonder whether a certain horrible injustice will be confronted, and if so, how. This scenario involves and encapsulates everyone in the family, and who they are inside.
The last few moments of the movie made me want to jump to my feet and applaud. I won't reveal what happens, but in the last 5 minutes, every person shows so much inner strength that I glow with admiration for their actions. Especially those of Beth and her oldest son, whose interaction with Jake results in my favorite scene in the movie. But don't think you know what's going to happen based on this description -it's a complicated scenario. I felt satisfied with the conclusion on all fronts, and thought that each character showed exactly where their strength lies.
Be forewarned that this movie is very heartbreaking. Its overall tone is one of futility, of better lives not received, of wanting the best but never quite getting it. It is very raw and intense in its portrayal of physical and domestic violence, and the easily upset may have a hard time waiting to see if it ends happily enough for their tastes. But no matter what your opinion is, it will definitely be a film that stays with you for a long, long time. My highest recommendation.
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