Sometimes in life, you have to roll with the punches, even when those punches keep on coming at you thick and fast. At least, that’s Bunny King’s (Essie Davis) philosophy. Only recently released from prison and surviving on the scraps of change she earns washing car windows at a busy intersection, Bunny barely has the resources to look after herself. Yet, she’s determined to win back the custody of her two young children, who, despite their mother’s determination, have long given up believing she will make good on her empty promises.
Bunny’s primary goal is to trade in her sister’s couch for her own place, but finding a house big and secure enough to convince social services that she’s competent enough to provide for her children, seems way outside the realm of possibility. However, Bunny doesn’t let her bleak job prospects or lack of funds stand in her way; she’s a hustler and a good one at that. With her plucky spirit and cunning personality, Bunny knows how to deliver her own version of the truth: in the right light, she isn’t a grifter looking for spare change but a woman with her own car-washing business.
We see her swallow down the pain of her pride to do what needs to be done. However, despite her resourcefulness and terminal determination, there’s a sense of frustration bubbling away under her surface that threatens to ignite with each and every knockback. These bumps in the road come in various shapes and sizes for Bunny, her circumstances growing bleaker no matter which direction she tries to turn. The most disparaging development comes after she manages to convince her sister to let her convert her garage into a home for her and the kids. The space is big enough to house the family of three, but just as Bunny gets started on the renovations, she catchers her brother-in-law acting inappropriately with her niece (Thomasin McKenzie), leaving her no choice but to fly into a rage, kick a door down and deal with the situation. However, without her sister’s support, Bunny finds herself homeless, further away from her kids and saddled with the responsibility of her niece’s safety.
With her untamed mane of hair pulled back into a ponytail, Bunny attempts to pull off the impossible, peddling every trick in the book to achieve her goal. She tidies up her appearance to impress potential landlords, she fills in all the correct forms and attends all of the required parenting classes, but the flashy clothes and ticked boxes do nothing to put money in her bank or a roof over her head. We see her struggle to keep her head above water and push her situation to the absolute limit to keep her dream alive. Still, no matter what she does, Bunny just can’t seem to beat the system or escape the oppressive rules and regulations pitted against struggling women down on their luck.
Gaysorn Thavatt’s direction is unwavering, and her relentless approach gifts the film its authentic edge. She populates Bunny’s world with detail and grit, which deftly reflects the unfair reality facing women, mothers and minors in their fight for justice and fair treatment. Moreover, it highlights the flaws of the social care system, which too often sees women as forms to be filled in and boxes to be ticked and not as real people with trauma and complex circumstances. Although the film sometimes feels overbearing and harsh, those brutal scenes nail down Thavatt’s message. The system is rigged against women in their fight for justice and equality. Unfortunately, in many cases, due to underfunding and flawed practices within the social care system, the nuances of each situation go ignored.
Some moments of the film are perhaps cliched, owing to the narrative’s lack of originality. The story overall pales in comparison when held up to movies like The Babadook or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri: both films being much more interesting approaches to the many unfairnesses standing in the way of wrung-out mothers. However, Davis’s performance manages to make The Justice of Bunny King worthy of comparison. Her characterisation is triumphant; she’s mesmerising to behold and manages to layer some much-needed imagination into the proceedings. As Bunny, she is chaotic, impulsive and quick to react—we can see how her skewed sense of right and wrong has landed her on this difficult path. However, Davis manages to make Bunny extremely likeable, giving her plenty of heart and courage. Through her sleight of hand performance, we can step into her character’s shoes and empathise with her situation, despite all of the niggling feelings of doubt and misjudged routes she takes to get what she wants. The ever-brilliant Thomasin McKenzie shines, too, this being another surefooted performance on her path to superstardom.
The Justice of Bunny King is available to watch as part of The Edinburgh Film Festival’s Features Program.