Gaysorn Thavat makes an electrifying feature directorial debut in “The Justice of Bunny King,” crafting a vivid portrait of a woman trapped by a tragic combination of circumstances, injustices, and bad instincts. The cameraperson-turned-filmmaker gets a big assist from star Essie Davis, playing a very different kind of stressed-out mother than in her breakthrough film, “The Babadook.” Together, the director and the star tell the tricky tale of a woman trying, with everything she has, to pull herself up out of poverty – and the impossibilities of that proposition.

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Davis plays Bunny, a “homeless squeegee bandit, but sexy,” she jokes (sort of). When we meet her, she’s trying to put her life back together after a displacement that’s not, at first, clear; she has two kids but is only allowed supervised visits until she has a home, but she can’t get a home until she has a steady job, and she can’t get a steady job. She’s staying with her sister and brother-in-law until she sees the latter doing something horrifying with his stepdaughter Tonya (Thomasin McKenzie) – and whatever her flaws, Bunny cannot act like she doesn’t see what she sees or know what she knows, even when her own stability and well-being is at stake. This isn’t only clear at that moment; her impulse towards self-destruction is always waiting to pounce throughout her story.

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So how did she get here? Sophie Henderson’s screenplay holds the generalities back for a good half-hour and doesn’t delve into the details until much later – and when Bunny does tell the story, it’s both no more and no less than we need. And that’s not really the point anyway; this is not a film about big plot reveals or long-buried secrets. It’s an up-close (at times, uncomfortably close) character study about how a desperate woman is driven to desperate actions. “Hang in there, bunny,” her friend’s mom tells her. “Things will get better.” 

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And she wants to believe that, so much that she goes to dangerous lengths to return her life to something like normalcy – even though she knows, somewhere in her soul, that such actions will ultimately take her even farther from it. That cycle and the awareness of it (both for the character and the audience) makes “The Justice of Bunny King” a genuinely stressful viewing experience; there’s a sinking feeling to watching it all barely come together and then immediately fall apart, culminating in a horrible scene where, backed into a corner, Bunny just has to keep on lying, long past the point where both she and the person she’s talking to know she’s not telling the truth. It doesn’t matter. She’s too deep to turn back, and she doesn’t know what else to do anymore.

Henderson’s script doesn’t step wrong until its closing scenes when it threatens to turn into another, lesser movie altogether. But Davis clings vigorously to the story’s emotional truth; there’s real potency and power in the places she goes, here and throughout the movie, which is emotionally hefty and often wrenching. The toughest scenes may be those with her estranged kids, as she balances the unconditional love of her youngest daughter with the cold cynicism of the older son who knows better; she keeps making promises to the younger, promises she hopes to keep, and know she can’t.

Bunny is so sympathetic and also so exhausting – and Davis plays both aspects of the character full-tilt, without worrying that the latter will outweigh the former. The films have little in common tonally or textually, but the character is strikingly reminiscent of the protagonist of Susan Seidelman’s “Smithereens” – you feel bad for her, but she doesn’t always make it easy. When Tonya calls Bunny, not entirely without merit, a “fucking bullshit artist,” Bunny responds the only way she can, the only honest way: “I’m doing the best I can!”

Mckenzie is a good match as an actor, countering Davis’s big emotions with a quieter turn and more introverted but no less affecting. She isn’t afraid of the difficult contradictions of the character, and by the film’s end, we’re struck by how much everyday horror this young woman shoulders and sucks up. “I wish we could just drive away into a new life,” she tells Bunny, “and never stop.” Bunny, unsurprisingly, agrees. But the world doesn’t work like that, and “The Justice of Bunny King” brings that point home with startling (and sometimes excruciating) clarity. [A-]

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