Anchored by a lead performance that feels at once guileless and vividly aware, this winning, straightforward feature debut lends dignity to the turmoil of teenagerhood, whilst staunchly resisting any sense that early losses must trap us where we are.
Frankie Box plays 14-year-old Leigh, whose comfort since the recent loss of her mother has been her progress to the higher levels of a local gymnastics club. Though some of the other, posher girls regard Leigh as a “charity case”, coach Gemma (Sharlene Whyte) has provided her with the sort of no-nonsense support and encouragement not available from her self-involved dad, Rob (Will Ash); though it isn’t stated, we glean that the quest for Gemma’s admiration is a stand-in for Leigh’s connection with her mother. Keeping up the required graft isn’t easy, however, especially with Rob an inconstant source of the money that the hobby sometimes requires. We meet Leigh as she begins to wonder whether she’s got the grit to carry on.
When a hitherto unheard-of half-brother suddenly turns up, we’re primed by the general instability of Leigh’s life to expect a deadbeat chip off Rob’s old block – someone who will bring her harm of one sort or another. Against the odds, though, Joe (Alfie Deegan) is a sweetheart: funny, encouraging, spontaneously affectionate with Leigh and genuinely interested in her life. Leigh’s confused reaction to this unexpected development allows Box to show the redoubtable range of her abilities, with the keynote of her performance a smile that breaks through all Leigh’s sullenness to remind us of the happy child she still has the chance to be.
Emotional articulacy comes much more readily to Joe, who’s also beautifully played by Deegan: he’s wide open about both his desire to forge a relationship with Rob, and his disappointment at Rob’s lack of response. He’s also instinctively able to read Leigh’s state of mind. “Did your mum get you into it?” he asks of her gymnastics. “Is that why you don’t want to stop?”
But if Leigh has sought a parent substitute in the unambiguously healthy and positive Gemma, Alfie’s role model comes in the far less prepossessing form of Reece (Billy Mogford), a suburban gangster who gets his kicks and cash organising the theft of mopeds. Joe, desperate to prove himself to someone, is already on board; Leigh, wanting money, credibility and time with her half-brother, soon wants a piece of the action too. Though Reece is hardly the Mr Big he wants to be (he’s deliciously shamed when Leigh and Joe pop round to drop off a bike, and his sweet mum tries to have them in for a drink and a chat in the kitchen), the dangers he poses are real.
Soon enough, how far they will go to impress Reece is a point of tension between Leigh, who wants to show how much of a rebel she can be, and Joe, who wants his newfound little sister uncorrupted. The sheer number of potential dangers that mass around Leigh – an arrest; an accident either on a bike or at the gym; sexual abuse at the hands of the clearly interested Reece; further familial rejection – read as a comment not only on the precariousness of young female lives, but also on the sacrificial status of working-class kids in arthouse cinema.
A great many dead ends present themselves to Leigh – but writer-director Eva Riley, a Scottish-born graduate of the National Film and Television School, executes a lot of graceful wrong-footing of our expectations, emphasising her protagonist’s vulnerability whilst refusing to milk her situation for melodrama. In the course of the film, its central question changes, from what will befall Leigh to how she will open her damaged heart to a forthright offer of love and support. This is touching, unexpected, and makes for one of the most distinctive and deeply-felt onscreen sibling relationships since Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me (2000).