Rates: * * * *
Why Did I Watch It? Seen as part of MIFF 2020, via their digital platform.
Teenage Leigh lives in the outer suburbs of Brighton, the sort of bland suburban nowhere that inspires a lot of creative people to do something with their lives. Her mother has gone and she lives with her deadbeat dad, who is so unfocused on her he only comes home about half the time (preferring to stay at his girlfriend’s house, where possible). But Leigh does have one outlet: gymnastics, which provides both an expressive release, and a connection to her mum, who introduced her to the sport.
Into this precarious picture comes Joe, a half brother Leigh had not previously been aware of. Leigh resents him at first, but soon finds that beneath his rough exterior, is a decent and caring person. They bond over petty crime; doing a bit of filching for a local wannabe kingpin (who hilariously still lives his gran). While strangers, Leigh and Joe connect pretty quickly, each finding in the other the type of support that their parents have been unable to provide. But there are plenty of bumps as their relationship develops; these are damaged kids, living in a tough environment.
After a series of short films, writer-director Eva Riley makes her feature debut with a classically styled coming of age drama. While there have been many of these, and many that have served as a first film, this one has an ace to play in the form of Frankie Box: the young actress is wonderful, as Leigh.
So much of the performance is delivered silently, via her expressions, and reactions to events. The character is shut down; she has responded to the trauma of her childhood by building a wall against the world, now she shelters behind that, and rarely reveals herself. Box manages to communicate much of the character’s inner world, without saying or doing anything overt; economical acting that lands with emotional impact. Box also delivers when the character does let her guard down; the standout scene is a climatic ballet rehearsal, where Leigh channels all of her emotions into one powerful display. Her coach is impressed: ‘Where did that come from?’ she asks. And the pleased expression on Leigh’s face says it all.
Alfie Deegan is also excellent as Joe, a capable kid battling a wide variety of barriers. Even though he is working towards becoming a criminal, Joe has not yet lost his moral compass; he understands right and wrong, and stays away from jobs where vulnerable people will be hurt. This brings complexity to the character, and the actor is able to convey a sense of the struggle he feels, trying to balance the conflicting elements of his life. His dynamic with Box is terrific, and makes their relationship believable.
A well made and sympathetic portrait of a pair of young people, grappling with everyday life. A terrific calling card for both leads, and the director: exciting to see what they will be working on next.