The Mountain review: Rachel House’s directorial debut is packed with childhood magic, discovery and pathos

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
New Zealand film The Mountain.
New Zealand film The Mountain. Credit: Madman

New Zealander Rachel House is best known for her onscreen work, notably in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Heartbreak High and Thor: Ragnarok, where her ability to deadpan is perfection. So, when she jumps to the other side of the camera, it’s notable.

Especially when she chose to make a family movie with three kids as the lead, the old adage in filmmaking is to never work with kids or animals, so, for a first-time feature director to work with almost only children, that’s bold.

The result is The Mountain, a sweet coming-of-age film packed with humour, pathos and cultural significance.

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Sam (Elizabeth Atkinson) is an 11-year-old girl undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. She is half Pakeha (European New Zealander) and half Maori, but she has no contact with her Maori dad and is disconnected from that side of her cultural background.

New Zealand film The Mountain.
The three leads are first-time actors. Credit: Madman

Sam wants to climb Taranaki Maunga (Mount Taranaki), believing that if she did, she could be healed. Making an escape from the hospital, Sam meets two other kids, Mallory (Reuben Francis), whose mother recently died, and Bronco (Terence Daniel), who has just moved to the area with his dad, a busy policeman.

Together, the three trek up Taranaki Maunga, becoming friends and being there for each other in a way that they feel their parents haven’t been. Bronco also helps Sam learn about her Maori heritage.

At an hour and a half, it clips along and has distinct acts, including one in which their parents start to catch up to them. And, as with many of these films, their adventures lead to a better understanding of each other’s challenges and perspectives. It warms the cockles.

The Mountain could’ve easily fallen into cloying whimsy but there’s a groundedness to its story, largely thanks to the performances from the child performers who are easily relatable.

House has previously worked with kids as a theatre director so while the medium is new, the experience of it is not. She clearly has the skills to elicit natural performances from three first-time actors. They might have innate screen presence and chemistry, but it has to be coaxed by a director.

Like many kids’ movies centred on a shared journey (Stand By Me, Hugo, Jumanji and The Sandlot Kids), that collective purpose and adventure evokes memories of childhood discovery, camaraderie and magic. In kids, the vibe is very different.

New Zealand film The Mountain.
New Zealand film The Mountain is in cinemas on June 27. Credit: Madman

There’s a fearlessness we lose right around the time we start high school – and being reminded of a time before judgment and anxiety is always welcome.

Perhaps The Mountain’s greater achievement is the way it tells the story of the connection between Maori people and the mountains that the culture believes are their ancient living ancestors.

Taranaki Maunga isn’t something Sam is trying to conquer, it’s something she’s looking to for healing, for answers and to be part of something meaningful.

There’s a gravity, complexity and emotional honesty to this seemingly straightforward kids’ movie that surprises.

Rating: 3.5/5

The Mountain is in cinemas on June 27


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