Perfect 10, a British film with gymnastics as a backdrop, lands at an altogether unsettled time for British gymnastics. The ripples provoked by Netflix's June release Athlete A, a documentary account of the abuses perpetrated within the American coaching system, soon made shore this side of the Atlantic; it's been rare to switch on the nightly news in recent weeks without hearing a sometime Team GB gymnast calling for a root-and-branch investigation into abuses carried out by support staff closer to home. Conversely, for Leigh (former GB gymnast Frankie Box), the heroine of Eva Riley's debut feature, the gymnasium is something of a safe space - or as secure as any space feels in her working-class neck of the woods, a place she sneaks into a night to sleep in the vault's foam-filled landing pit. Her problems lurk beyond the gym's doors: in mean-girl contemporaries mocking her every move and turn, in a deadbeat dad (familiar TV face William Ash) who doesn't even pay Leigh the courtesy of informing her she's got a half-brother moving in with them, in the nagging absence of a mother to cheer and reassure her. Riley skilfully evokes the fears and doubts that can weigh a young person down, doubly so when she's gearing up to perform pirouettes and triple doubles; she then spends 83 minutes at the side of a young woman attempting to shake her head clear so that her body can defy gravity again.
Thus Perfect 10 sets itself up as more closequarters British social realism, of which Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank remains this century's most illustrious example - and Box's Leigh is recognisably in the Katie Jarvis line of attitudinous heroines lashing out at an indifferent world with sharp tongue and violent movements. (Her floor routine is plainly the only mobility she has.) The film will take a long run-up before a final leap into thriller territory; for the most part, it's operating in that observational mode a lot of British short films (from which Riley emerges) now operate in. What do we notice? Firstly, that Riley has many of the right tools in her armoury already, an eye for interesting screen presences chief among them. Neither Box nor Alfie Deegan (as the half-brother, Joe) are your standard ready-polished stage-school graduates slumming in indie before taking their rightful place in heritage drama: you can tell that from their unconventional line readings, their intrinsically convincing taunts of "div" (they've said the word before), how their faces keep defaulting to lived-in frowns. (It makes their rare smiles all the more potent.) Riley situates them in nicely humdrum locations: some of her strongest scenes here involve kids deemed too young for pubs hanging around listening to crap music on nondescript scraps of land, because there's nowhere else for them to go after dark. Viewers outside major metropolitan areas will surely nod along: yup, been there, done whatever that was, you big div.
More impressively yet, Riley demonstrates a sure grasp on character psychology. To watch Leigh turning somersaults for an older boy after she notices Joe (on whom she may have a dubious crush) dancing with another girl is to immediately sense our heroine's need for affirmation. The opening sequence - Leigh messing up a flip after her head floods with voices - has already sketched in the idea that she might be dangerously distractible; it's a character flaw that starts to throb like a sore tooth as those around her leap ever more heedlessly into petty crime. All that training has left her a lithe catburglar-in-waiting, after all; and she notices, as we do, that the gym's administrators are altogether cavalier with the cash box. Instead of a competition, Perfect 10 heads instead towards the kind of One Last Heist typically undertaken by crews of rheumy old lags - an enterprise with the same risk factored into Leigh's floor routines, but a level of difficulty for which she hasn't entirely warmed up. Here, as elsewhere, you spot that Riley hasn't yet attained the poetry that was written into Arnold's work from the off, but that's a high bar for anyone to find themselves facing out the gate; she's attentive enough for the time being, making something cherishable out of Leigh's smudged mascara the morning after she shares a bed with Joe, and a final movement in which our heroine displays a concentration and maturity we may hitherto have thought beyond her. Riley charts that progression with fluency and confidence - and it's a vivid platform for Box, not a girl, not yet a woman, and still pretty much the most compelling figure tumbling across our screens this week.
Perfect 10 is now showing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.