The titular Bunny King is a self-proclaimed “homeless squeegee bandit… but sexy”. In reality, she’s a single mother whose children have been taken from her by social services for reasons unknown, who sleeps on the couch in her sister’s family home and for whom the idea of nailing down a stable job hasn’t even crossed her mind. Instead, she’s preoccupied with a single goal: reuniting her tiny family in order to celebrate her young daughter’s birthday with a trip to the “hot pools”.

Obsessed with this single objective, Bunny suffers from tunnel vision of the severest sort, with her desperation to jump through the hoops that the authorities demand of her so intense that it blinds her to all other considerations. Before long, we learn the reasons why she is deemed an unfit mother, despite her clear devotion to her children. And it’s perhaps not all that surprising; Bunny has been living hand-to-mouth and day-to-day for so long that farsightedness and forethought have become alien concepts to her.

As if she wasn’t under enough emotional strain, Bunny then stumbles across a horrific revelation about her sister’s family that will derail her plans even further. This escalates what was already a fairly hare-brained scheme into preposterous territory, as Bunny continues to make one bad decision after another. These extenuating circumstances paint a more nuanced picture of the film’s subject matter; what initially appears as a fairly straightforward hatchet job on the New Zealand housing crisis and its social services takes on different dimensions as we learn the extent of Bunny’s deficiencies and delusions.

Despite her often irrational and irresponsible behaviour, however, we never lose sight of Bunny’s humanity and the demons with which she is wrestling. That’s in large part to the outstanding performance of Essie Davis, who imbues Bunny with such believable grit and emotion to give credence to her craziness and sympathy to her irresponsibility. Indeed, the entire cast deliver natural and emotive performances, even when they’re given less to do (as with her niece Tonyah, Thomasin McKenzie) or cut more of a two-dimensional character (as with Tonyah’s stepfather Bevan, Erroll Shand).

Established on such a strong foundation and buttressed with such exemplary actors across the board, then, it’s a terrible shame that the final act of the film relinquishes its grip on reality in the way it does. Whereas Bunny’s actions had been thus far illogical, they suddenly take on an even more inscrutable bent, while the behaviour of those around her also begins to raise eyebrows. Instead of following the carefully laid flagstones of social realism that they had spent the previous hour putting in place, the filmmakers opt for a contrived grandstanding finish which might add excitement, but sacrifices plausibility by doing so.

That’s not to say that the late missteps undo all the good groundwork laid previously. Even if the latter third of the film loses much in its incongruousness with what came before, Davis, McKenzie and a strong late turn from Tanea Heke as a bemused social worker still carry it over the line. It remains an engaging, textured and at times highly entertaining piece of cinema, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that it could have been so much more had it ploughed a different furrow with its finale.

Screening as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival 2021