Claire Oakley's feature debut Make Up falls into that emergent subgenre of littoral realism that has recently given us Bait and Two for Joy for the big screen, and Broadchurch and Don't Forget the Driver on TV. In each of these projects, the great British seaside has been reclaimed as something approaching the outer limits of the universe, as far as any of us is likely to get post-Brexit. (In time, a longer critical essay will appear linking these works to the effect coastal resorts such as those featured - reported first stop for migrants, last place to receive Government aid - had on the Brexit result. If the Leave vote was a cry for attention, as some analysts have mooted, its heartlands sure got it.) Ironically, Oakley's heroine is a young woman whose world is just about to open up. In the dead of night, Ruth (Molly Windsor) is dropped at a St. Ives caravan park so as to visit her boyfriend Tom (Joseph Quinn), a seasonal worker hereabouts. Barely has she installed herself in Tom's modest two-berth when she starts to notice something's awry. A lipstick kiss adorns Tom's mirror; strands of long red hair are entwined in his bedsheets. While her beau is away putting in a shift, Ruth begins her investigations, soon falling under the spell of the worldlier Jade (Stefanie Martini), the site's resident beautician, who introduces her beguiled acolyte to the adult joys of acrylic nails and alcoholic drinks. Jade also keeps a red wig on the shelves at the back of her chalet, and the first of the film's frissons comes when you realise Oakley has made an erotic thriller in the kind of place our parents dragged us to at 4.30 in the morning, where a couple of rounds of crazy golf was as exciting as it got.
What Oakley has realised, to her considerable credit, is that our dilapidated, under-maintained caravan parks - and, more specifically, our caravan parks in the off-season - are a location with uncommon cinematic potential: prefabricated ghost towns, abandoned to the elements under wide-open skies, which nurtures their own eccentric, vaguely insular life. For some while here, there's a deliberate ambiguity about the direction events are heading in; having positioned herself squarely at the cliff's edge, we wonder which way Oakley is intending to jump. There are funny scenes with the site's batty owner (Lisa Palfrey), who bears all the signs of having been isolated out this way too long ("the sea is a great healer... After I learnt to swim, I was no longer afraid of dogs"). Oakley adds a dash of horror to the mix via a spooky old dear who appears at the window of the caravan across the way, and there's an ongoing tension among the park's young staff, keenest felt between Tom and resident, dog-wielding alpha Kai (Theo Barklem-Biggs). Ruth presents as an innocent who's been dropped in the middle of a situation she doesn't fully understand - which is itself understandable, as we don't fully grasp what's going on for much of Make Up's running time.
Its success is going to depend on how satisfied you are by the ratio of suggestion to revelation Oakley arrives at. Given everything that seems to swirl around this location, there may be those, like this viewer, who will be ever so slightly disappointed to discover, come the end credits, that what they've been watching is but an unusually elevated coming-of-age tale. In retrospect, Oakley seems to spend two-thirds of her running time scattering red herrings (hair-ings, maybe), locally sourced and artfully applied though they are. What makes Make Up an intriguing debut nevertheless is that she keeps alighting upon elements that pique the eye; our curiosity matches the heroine's curiosity, and so we find ourselves drawn deeper in. It's not enough that Oakley arrives at a great horror image - a caravan apparently sealed for fumigation, yet lit from within - she follows it by finding an unnerving horror image within that: a child's teddy bear, sealed to a bed. Encoded within these frames and images is an understanding that Oakley could go any which way, that there might already be the outlines of three or four further projects in the trails she leaves behind in these sand dunes. (Hence the industry excitement about her: she's got legs.) Plenty of promise visible, then, not least in its fierce focal point Windsor, so compelling in Samantha Morton's directorial debut The Unloved and on TV's Three Girls. We could follow her to the ends of the earth, which is just about where Oakley's camera finds her.
Make Up opens from today in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema.