It was relatively easy to be sent to The Home for Wayward and Delinquent Girls in 1950s New Zealand. If you were a 12-year-old who shoplifted a few trinkets, if you were poor and homeless, or if you engaged in any sexual activity, chances were that you would end up there. We follow Nettie, Daisy, and Lou, who band together and try to escape the school. After they are caught, the authorities decide to relocate all the girls to a remote island once used for lepers. Things are more bleak for the girls, and even the staff feels under-resourced and abandoned.

Lou is the daughter of an upper-class doctor. When he catches her in a romantic encounter with her female tutor, he rejects her and turns her in to the authorities. Nellie was sent to the city to work, but her sponsor never turned up, and she became homeless, as did her younger acquaintance Daisy. Soon, the three are plotting their escape, but it will be tricky because it’s an island. When they learn that the school doctor is planning sterilization surgeries, it becomes even more urgent. They are set to go, but a betrayal seems imminent.

Rims Te Wiata plays the overzealous matron in charge of their reformation. She does a great job in the role. Her character always believes she’s doing them all a favor by teaching them to fit into society. She and most of the girls are Māori, as is the director Josephine Stewart Te-Whiu. The director was one of nine Māori women filmmakers in the movie Waru and directed the short Ani.

This was the first film I viewed at SXSW 2024, and I was very impressed with it. The suspense is well paced, it’s warm without being maudlin, and it doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant aspects of the time period. I highly recommend it.

Directed by Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu

Written by Maddie Dai and Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu

Cast: Erana James, Manaia Hall, Nathalie Morris

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