There are rare moments in cinema where the female character is allowed to be raw, passionate, and angry without the film without the film condemning her. Gaysorn Thavat’s theatrical debut, The Justice of Bunny King (2021), gives us a sympathetic spotlight of struggling women.
From the opening moments, we're immersed in Bunny's (Essie Davis) world; working effortlessly to clean windscreens of passing cars, sleeping on the sofa of her sister’s home, and bottling her frustration at her painful separation from her children who are in social care. These scenes of Bunny’s tireless day-to-day life, coloured with the dull tones of grey, blue, and beige, lure the audience into believing that this will be a run-of-the-mill, moving kitchen-sink drama. However, Bunny's pink jumper shining through the colour palette of ordinary life hints that this won't be a film that's content with the mundane.
Bunny is a funny, generous, and optimistic protagonist, despite her devastating and traumatic circumstances. We follow her attempts to find a suitable home to reunite with her children for her daughter’s birthday for her daughter's birthday, but the hurdles she faces prove nearly impossible to pass through. The condescending tone of the case worker, the judgemental stares of the real estate agent, the unhelpful attitude of the receptionist at the social care office, help portray a negligent system that is happy to vilify single mothers, ex-cons and the working class. What's more, she faces her own personal and familial issues, and must take care of her niece, Tonyah (Thomasin McKenzie). We see the ruthlessness of institutions wear Bunny down to breaking point.
What starts as kitchen sink spirals into a whirlwind thriller as Bunny fights back from the corner she has been pushed into by the social care system, her family, and ultimately her own decisions. Bunny’s inspiring mission to reunite with her children quickly evolves into something altogether chaotic in the final act of the story. The emotional tension that has been cleverly built up by Davis’ portrayal of Bunny finally erupts. The clues to her character and her past are uncovered, and the story hits the viewer with a riveting and unexpected turn of events.
Akin to a Safdie Brothers movie, the characters are placed into a tumultuous day, where so much is happening as time closes in, and some meet tragic ends. This sudden change in tone may alienate some viewers, but it had me gripped and entangled in the exploration of this complex character. Bunny is a flawed and impulsive person. The world judges her, and we definitely fall into the trap of judging her too. She is seen as a villain by some, and viewers may feel the same way. She doesn't make the best decisions, and often makes mistakes, but who hasn’t?
The film is sympathetic towards her and ever cruel; but all actions incur realistic consequences. We know that in this unjust and undeserved life handed to Bunny, she fights in the only way she knows how. The tragedy is that we soon recognise that Bunny’s approach will play out disastrously. While the third act is on the verge of melodrama, it serves to assert Bunny as an unstoppable force, and it will take an equally powerful climax to contain her. In one interview for Women and Hollywood, Gaysorn Thavat mentions that she became a filmmaker so that she could write more stories about female characters that are ‘complex and truthful and not through a reductive, air brushed, sexualized lens.’ I think we can definitely see that in Bunny.
However bleak the story may appear on paper, Bunny is vibrantly brought to life by Essie Davis. Davis, who has previously portrayed a mother desperate to hold her family and life together in the melodrama-turned-horror The Babadook (2014), never fails to provide a convincing performance of a mother who lives through extensive emotional turmoil. Thomasin McKenszie’s reserved and distressed Tonyah complements Davis’ Bunny, and their chemistry is well-suited to a narrative about women who save each other. They add a humanity to characters who could easily come across as caricatures by lesser performers
If you’re looking for a heroic redemption arc, you’ll be left dissatisfied. The film's joy comes in exploring the audience's capacity for rooting for a character who makes questionable decisions. The Justice of Bunny King is not so much about justice at all, as the ending is more heart-breaking than satisfying, but more so about the demand for justice, for all women like Bunny.