With a title like “The Justice of Bunny King,” you’d expect a gunslinger to swagger into town in the film’s opening frames, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong if you replaced a revolver with squeegee. Bunny (Essie Davis) needs nothing more to feel a little dangerous, even in her compromised state, washing windows at a busy intersection for what change passing drivers want to fish out of their pockets. Anger may get the cars a little cleaner as she furiously wipes them down, but it has a way of poisoning Bunny, with the gradual understanding that it’s led her directly to the streets. If not for her sister Grace and her husband Bevan, she wouldn’t have a roof over her head, though it can’t be considered home, either in her eyes when it doesn’t belong to her or the eyes of the law, which won’t return her kids from child welfare without demonstrating that she has found steady employment and stable housing.
You have your suspicions about what Bunny did, but director Gaysorn Thavat, working from a script co-written with Sophie Henderson, is careful to only drop a few hints, instead letting audiences see her in a prison without bars when getting a job and a house are unduly reliant on each other and getting a meeting with child services is difficult, let alone locking in their approval. Still, Bunny is remarkably adept at slipping in and out of places, memorizing the code for a high-rise apartment that she’s shown by an unwitting real estate agent and absconding with her niece Tonyah (Thomasin McKenzie) from her sister’s place after suspecting Bevan might have ill intentions for her. Rather than let this unfold as your standard issue domestic drama, Thavat instead envisions “The Justice of Bunny King” in the grand tradition of Aussie outlaw cinema in which the rugged road to redemption goes through social services.
At this point, it’s hard to go wrong with Davis in maternal mode, a streak of ferocious film roles that carries back to “The Babadook” and has since included “Babyteeth” and “The True History of the Kelly Gang.” While Bunny’s five-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son appear fleetingly, they remain ever-present in Davis’ performance, compensating for their absence in her life with a variety of emotions ranging from fear to compassion that reflect how she unraveled when they were removed from being her equilibrium. An unpredictable character gets a film that is increasingly unhinged, culminating in a standoff with the child welfare office that may stretch the limits of credibility that had been so carefully built up, but while “The Justice of Bunny King” may bend, it doesn’t break, embodying the spirit of its indomitable lead who, when describing her look to a Dress to Impress worker as “homeless squeegee bandit, but sexy” gives a pretty good idea of the wily and tender movie to come.