Dir: Georgia Parris. With: Bobbi Jene Smith, Madeleine Worrall, Phoebe Nicholls, Peter Singh. 94 mins. Cert: 12A
The latest triumph from Film London’s Microwave scheme – the low-budget production boost that has given us such worthwhile investments as Hong Khaou’s Lilting and Eran Creevy’s Shifty – is an engrossing close-up study of a thirtysomething woman caught between two worlds, and two states of being. The American choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith plays Charlotte, a principal in a contemporary dance troupe whose preparations for a major show are dealt two blows in quick succession. First comes a positive pregnancy test, and the realisation the body with which she so forcefully expresses herself may shortly undergo radical change; next, there’s a call from her family, gathering round the hospital bed of her dying grandmother. A rehearsal-room prologue has already established Charlotte’s uncommon physical flexibility. What follows is a test of mental and emotional adaptability.
Writer-director Georgia Parris’s fascination resides in those tensions that exist in certain bohemian-leaning families, rarely addressed head-on, yet always present in quieter rooms; Joanna Hogg appears to be one influence here. Judicious enough to present us with both sides of this situation, the filmmaker casts supremely sympathetic actresses – Phoebe Nicholls and Madeleine Worrall – as Charlotte’s mum and sister, striving to hold their clan together while insisting that, whatever else they are, dance recitals aren’t quite life and death. Smith herself keeps shifting our responses, much as Charlotte pushes and pulls her troupe. This performer’s nervous vibration makes her solo scenes more immediately compelling than the hospital interactions, yet we understand how her relentless intensity might well drive mum and sis to look for jollifying llama memes.
A few scenes around gran’s cottage risk slipping into that airlessness that dogs Hogg’s work; light and space may well come naturally with a bigger budget. Nevertheless, Parris is way ahead of the game in her framing choices and sound design, and stirringly adventurous in her incorporation of dance into the rigid, humdrum everyday. One dream sequence ranks among the boldest imaginative leaps in recent British cinema, and there’s something so smart in the use of a floor exercise to comment on the unfolding drama of a fiercely self-sufficient woman having to feel her way through the complex business of dependency. If you enjoyed Madeline’s Madeline despite its indie quirks, Parris’s carefully weighted debut may prove just the leftfield ticket: there’s a lot of promise here, but equally a startling level of achievement.
Mari opens in selected cinemas from today, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.