Beth Heke (Rena Owen) left her small town and despite the disapproval of her parents she married Jake "the Muss" Heke (Temuera Morrison) - Muss being short for "Muscles." After eighteen years they live in a slum and have five children. Their interpretations of life and being M?ori are tested. Since Beth is from a more traditional background she related to the old ways, while Jake is an interpretation of what some M?ori have become. The family is also shown disconnected from Western culture and ways of learning. Grace is the only character with a real interest in education. She keeps a journal in which she writes about herself, and also stories which she tells her younger siblings.
At the start of the film, Jake is made redundant from his job, and for the rest of the film he is unemployed and spends most of the day getting drunk at the local pub with his friends. Here, he is in his element, buying drinks, singing songs and savagely beating any other patron who he considers to have stepped out of line (hence his nickname of 'The Muss'). He often invites huge crowds of friends back from the bar to his home for wild parties. While Jake portrays himself as an easy going man out for a good time, he has a vicious temper when drinking. This is highlighted when his wife dares to 'get lippy' at one of his parties and he savagely attacks her in front of their friends.
Nig (Julian Arahanga), the Hekes' eldest son, moves out to join a street gang whose rituals include facial tattoos in Maori culture called T? moko. This usually shows the heritage of the person, in Nig's case, he only shows the heritage of his mother with the Moko located only on one side of his face. He is subjected to a savage beating by the gang members, then embraced as a new brother by the leader and is later seen sporting the gang's tattoos. Nig cares about his siblings, but despises his father for his thoughtless brutality, a feeling returned by the elder Heke.
The second son, Mark 'Boogie' Heke (Taungaroa Emile), has a history of minor criminal offences, and is taken from his family and placed in a foster home as a ward of the state due to the situation with his parents. Despite his initial anger, Mark finds a new niche for himself, as the foster home's manager instructs him in his Maori heritage.
Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell), the Heke's thirteen-year-old daughter, loves writing stories, as an escape from the brutality of her real life. Her best friend is a drug-addicted homeless boy named Toot who lives in a wrecked car. He is the one who really cares for her.
Grace is raped in her bed by family friend 'Uncle' Bully (Cliff Curtis). After wandering through the city streets one night Grace comes home to an angry Jake. As she is about to go to bed, Bully asks for "a kiss goodnight". Grace refuses and her father tears up her journal and nearly beats her up. She runs out to the backyard. Beth returns home a minute later and goes outside, to find that Grace has hanged herself.
Jake is soon kicked out of home by a newly-defiant Beth after he refuses to change his lifestyle, and stays in the pub with his mates while the rest of the family is attending Grace's funeral, a mix of Christian and Maori tradition. When Beth reads Grace's diary later that day she finds out about the rape and confronts Jake in the pub. Jake at first threatens Beth, but Nig hands him Grace's diary and Jake, true to form, reacts by beating 'Uncle' Bully to a pulp. Beth then states her intentions to leave with their children and return to her M?ori village and traditions, defiantly telling Jake that her M?ori heritage gives her the strength to resist his control over her.