For a while, Real plays like a throwback to those lowish-budget, slightly shuffling relationship dramas that were a Britfilm commonplace in the years immediately following Notting Hill. On a drizzly afternoon somewhere on the fringes of Havant, writer-director Aki Omoshaybi nudges together a couple of characters in the nondescript surrounds of a convenience store. Jamie (Pippa Bennett-Warner) is a single mother struggling to keep the lights on and food in the fridge for the young son she plainly adores. Kyle (played by Omoshaybi himself) is introduced cockily propositioning Jamie in the street after paying for her groceries, then retreats so as to move back into his devout mother's house. There would be next to nothing out of the ordinary about the pair's interactions were it not for the fact that Kyle and Jamie are black Britons, which is to say they wouldn't traditionally be front-and-centre in a theatrically released romance. (The closest we've had to Real was 2018's Michaela Coel vehicle Been So Long, but that was snapped up by Netflix for home viewing.)
What Omoshaybi has overseen is a slight but notable generic shift, noted in passing by that title. These lovers are less leisured than their Caucasian predecessors (and substantially less so than their upwardly mobile equivalents in those buppie romcoms that travelled this way from America in the early Noughties). Their first date comes to an abrupt end when Kyle is called away on a cash-in-hand gig; their second, in a restaurant, is paused so he can step outside to collect the money to allow him to pay for dinner. Here is a romance between two characters who no longer know how to relax - who are always, for reasons that go beyond mere matters of the heart, on their guard. Careful sound design suggests possible explanations for this: even that apparently successful second date ends with the noise of sirens and rowing couples, while a later TV news report offers the latest on a stabbing victim.
Visually, the film's a mixed bag: emergent cinematographer Michael Edo Keane (Around the Sun) squeezes out some pretty shots of Kyle cycling through sundappled streets, but the budgetary limitations become clear whenever we head indoors. (A hand-drawn picture of Ian Wright is as extravagant as things get.) Yet there's a richness to Omoshaybi's writing and characterisation that keeps us interested. This relationship is genuinely complicated; it's not the usual boy-meets-girl, boy-does-dumb-stuff-and-loses-girl pablum, and it stems from other, less immediately presentable areas of Kyle and Jamie's lives. That makes for some good, involved and involving playing. Bennett-Warner wins us over simply by being so great around Taye Matthew as her son, making us understand why she's so wary of the gadabout who comes galumphing into their lives in his Primarni suit; yet Omoshaybi works hard in the second half to contextualise Kyle's childishness. Third-act problems await them both, and here Real strays into contrivance: more screentime might have finessed it, although I'm aware that would have called for more money. (As it is, the coda feels like a plaster stuck over an open wound.) Still, like his characters, Omoshaybi is at the beginning of something, so the odd wrong turn is forgivable. There's enough promise on show to hope everything works out for those before and behind the camera.
Real opens in selected cinemas from today.