▶︎ Real is screening in UK cinemas and available on BFI Player and SkyStore.

Black lives matter, even in sunny Hampshire’s post-war social housing. Writer-director-star Aki Omoshaybi’s début feature unfolds amid greenery and low-rise brick-built terraces which constitute a different world from the urban grime of south or east London, though the pressures of keeping body and soul together while remaining on the right side of the law remain stubbornly familiar. Black British characters are front and centre here, though Omoshaybi’s script isn’t about upfront racism per se, instead tracing generational disintegration and dysfunction that is part of a wider cultural fresco.

For their first meet-cute Omoshaybi’s Kyle and Pippa Bennett-Warner’s Jamie are suited and booted, all very aspirational, but both are masking their true circumstances – he’s on probation after prison and living at home, while she’s a single mum, on the breadline with a young son. Both are struggling but keeping up appearances, though we sense a possibility of mutual understanding if they’re brave enough to open up to one another.

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Pippa Bennett-Warner as Jamie and Aki Omoshaybi as Kyle

Hugely sympathetic performances prove the key here, as the film unpeels past troubles like the layers of an onion. Omoshaybi’s an appealing presence, still flailing under the burden of a family tragedy, and Bennett-Warner exudes maternal warmth while putting up a hard emotional shell, an effort that clearly takes its toll. A lovely turn from child actor Taye Matthews gives the family scenes a glow that never seems too cute or forced. As the subject matter focuses on the everyday, boosted by the odd melodramatic contrivance, Omoshaybi’s evident skill with his actors, and a camera style that resists first-time showing off, draw us in to the would-be couple’s struggle, as both cope with the legacy of single-parent households.

That suspiciously compact 77-minute running-time tells its own story, however: just as we’re getting to the nitty-gritty of how these two fragile characters are going to get real with each other and build a robust relationship, we jump through a transition to a coda that has essentially omitted the dramatic payoff the story has been building to. It’s as if the carpet has just been pulled from under our feet; perhaps this was down to budget issues or some other practical necessity, but in artistic terms it makes very little sense.

Still, Omoshaybi has left an engrossing calling-card here, and it’s undoubtedly a positive for the industry that a Black British multi-hyphenate gets to tell a story that’s valid, insightful and inviting – not to mention a welcome diversion from the familiar ‘urban’ clichés.

Originally published: 11 September 2020