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Release Date: 03/08/24 [Festival Run]
Genre: Drama.

[Seen at SXSW Film Festival 2024]

"Nellie, Daisy and Lou attend an institution for delinquent girls on an isolated island in 1954. The trio rail against the system, finding strength in their friendship but this is challenged when the school's matron divides them." 


From the opening scenes of We Were Dangerous we’re immediately thrust into a 1950’s era building of faux order. It has the hallmarks of a convent, but harsher. A crucifix decorates the wall. Adults in boring clothes patrol the halls. And young girls share a single room with beds in a tidy line. No one chooses to be here, this is a place to house delinquents. But teenage girls cannot be contained and three of them execute a plot to escape the confines of this gated building. 


Nellie (Erana James) and Daisy (Manaia Hall) are caught before they can climb over the tall wrought iron fence that’s designed to prevent them from leaving. This attempted escape prompts a facility change. The entire ragtag group of girls and the matron (Rima Te Waita) who oversees them (with a firm if misguided hand) relocate to a remote island with ramshackle, leaky huts for shelter. 


As the story unfolds we get backstories for a few members of the group via a voiceover provided by the Matron. All of them have been labeled “delinquent” girls. Delinquent here having the meaning of mostly Māori youth (New Zealand's indigenous population) and others who are considered amoral—sexual deviants who either have too much sex, the wrong kind of sex, or the wrong types of partners. 


Much of the movie focuses on a trio of girls. Nellie and Daisy were arrested together for stealing and sent to be rehabilitated. They befriend newcomer Louisa (Nathalie Morris), a white, well to do teen who comes with the scandalous label of sexual deviant. The trio navigate the island and the matron’s increasingly unhinged behavior together; consoling each other in moments of sadness and defeat and stealing moments of silly fun when the opportunity arises. 


This might sound like a straight forward story of teenage friendship in unfortunate circumstances. But writer Maddie Dai attempts to make it so much more than that. The screenplay weaves themes of the power of girlhood friendship with the absurdity of colonialism and imposing Christian values on indigenous people under the guise of saving them. She seamlessly combines quiet moments of feminine rebellion with more emphatic middle fingers to the entire system. And through the heavy moments, Dai infuses the girls with an indomitable spirit that has you rooting for them to succeed. 


With the short runtime some ideas aren’t fully developed, but the story is brought to life beautifully (if slightly rushed) by director Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu, a New Zealand director who pulls natural and compelling performances from the trio. Erana James, in her first large role since the Amazon show, The Wilds, was promptly canceled after its second season, commands the screen with a fiery presence that will undoubtedly become her signature. Nathalie Morris is more subtle, juggling a difficult character arc with ease. But Manaia Hall is the scene stealer in her feature film debut. She portrays the wild abandon of youth to perfection, her cheeky smile and sly jokes are delivered with an earnestness that even seasoned actors struggle to perfect. 


Cinematographer Maria Ines Manchengo captures sweet and powerful moments of girlhood with a steady hand. She lets the girls fill up the entire frame, consuming our eyes with visions of a mess of body parts flailing as they dance freely to rock and roll. The girlhood is loud, messy, chaotic. But it’s also quiet, and Manchego captures these moments just as exquisitely. When the trio makes a pallet of sheets on the floor of their hut and lay in a heap of intertwining limbs we revel in their shared laughter as they make fun of the matron and tease each other good naturedly. These tiny, beautiful moments capture the essence of girlhood friendships in an environment that makes even ordinary exchanges feel weighty. 


Through it all, director Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu infuses the story with heartwarming moments that balance out the frustrating hypocrisy and abuse of power depicted by the adults. In the face of injustice and cruelty there will always be those who rebel. And they’ll be dangerous.

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