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Savage review – moving New Zealand street-gang saga | Drama films

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A pulse of vulnerability beats at the heart of Sam Kelly’s outwardly imposing but unexpectedly touching debut feature. Across three decades, it charts the punk’s progress of young New Zealander Danny into copiously tattooed street-gang life. After being sent to borstal in the 1960s for stealing food and brutalised there, he befriends a Tongan New Zealander boy called Moses. The two later form a gang, the Savages – named to nihilistically expose society’s true core – but torn by his loyalty to his birth family, Danny’s position is never secure. By the 80s, Danny has become “Damage”, a hulking, live-wire enforcer who wears his allegiances on his face in a bluish nose guard of gang-crest ink.

Kelly occasionally gives in to the odd crime-drama mannerism, like the Savages swaggering out, Reservoir Dogs-style, for the first time. But he makes the smart choice of never being distracted from the emotional cost of holding your own in this self-inflicted prison of testosterone. Early on, Damage botches a hook-up with a banker’s daughter keen on a bit of rough because he can’t handle surrendering control. Seen across the decades, violence clearly has its roots in a pain and shame whose consequences won’t stop radiating. Kelly has a knack of putting these ideas across with light lyrical concision, like the row of dominoes that gets the childhood section underway.

Taking a young “prospect” under his wing finally presents Damage with an opportunity to break the circle. Former Home and Away actor Jake Ryan, possessing similar solemn antipodean tones to Russell Crowe, has the required physical presence to play Damage; his character’s straight-arrow MO not only contrasts nicely with his gang-sign-brandishing, mostly Māori and Pacific Islander confrères, but also with interestingly nervy work by James Matamua as his less assured teenage self. Outcast by society, Damage’s conflicted feelings make him an outcast in his own gang – and finally threaten him with permanent exile from his own childhood innocence. A moving character study with bruising moral weight.

• Savage is in cinemas on 11 September.

• This article was amended on 10 September 2020 to correct a reference to Moses, who is a Tongan New Zealander, not Māori, and to add that Damage’s confrères include Pacific Islanders.

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