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High up in a Glasgow tower block, a young mother tends to her daughter’s every need – running her baths, brushing her hair, lying next to her to soothe her to sleep. Ama is 11, but has been so sheltered that she retains the wonderment of a much younger child, while Grace is in her mid-twenties but aged by trauma and in a near-constant state of hyper-vigilance. In Adura Onashile’s feature, both come of age – Ama tentatively finding identity outside her relationship with her mother, and Grace facing past demons while struggling to contain their co-dependent universe within their small flat.
Threats real and imagined exist beyond those doors. The racist abuse and degradation from the outside world is tangible, but Grace’s response to it spirals into untethered paranoia; she forbids Ama to go school or even open the door, and only leaves the house herself for night shifts as a cleaner.
The flat where much of the film takes place has a near celestial quality, as though it were suspended among the stars, disconnected from the rest of humanity. In the distance, framed by the window, the lights of a fairground seem to merge with the constellations.
The dialogue is sparse, allowing the viewer’s gaze to linger on the film’s sumptuous composition – Onashile frequently bathes her actors and their environment in a jewel-toned light.
A playwright and actor, Onashile is no stranger to imperfect mothers, having played the title role in Liz Lochhead’s Medea at the National Theatre of Scotland in 2022, and the striking performances she coaxes from the film’s dual leads here offers a deeply empathetic, complex view of maternal love.
A film in which a traumatised African immigrant and her daughter face racism and loneliness, with the maternal figure reacting by trying to cut her child off from the outside world, could be utterly miserable in the hands of the wrong filmmaker. But Onashile’s closeness to the material – the film is loosely based on events from her childhood in Bermondsey in south London – brings out a gentle and optimistic poetry to the story. Instead of leaning into operatic crescendos of emotion, she gives space to the small instances of joy and beauty that can be found in this cultivated sanctuary. But even without an emphasis on cruelty and melodrama, when the pain of Grace’s past and present makes it onto the screen, this proves to be the film’s least interesting element. It is the moments of small, unexpected kindness that are the film’s most potent.
► Girl is in UK cinemas on 24 November.