Tuesday 2 March 2021

Gone girl: "Justine"

If nothing else, Jamie Patterson's Justine can lay claim to being the first lowish-budget Brit indie to open with an Ovid quote. What follows is a variable, most often sketchy character study, centred on a snarky, nose-ringed twentysomething misfit who's found a natural home among the pebbles and bazaars of Brighton. Justine (Tallulah Haddon) is introduced emerging in her undergarments from the bath she's been immersed in to answer the door to a landlord chasing rent arrears; he looks her squarely up and down, before coming to a blunt conclusion: "What a fucking state". Jeff Murphy's script, a more sympathetic adoption of much the same line, then sets about untangling her, flashing back three months to the beginning of Justine's relationship with Rachel (Sophie Reid), an upright teacher-in-training with especially commendable teeth. From their meet-cute - Justine shoplifting in a bookstore Rachel's browsing in - these two share the kind of push-me-pull-you chemistry you only get when complete opposites attract, but one has the mobility and self-belief the other plainly doesn't, which possibly explains the state we first found our heroine in.

The number-one reason for Justine's physical and emotional dishevelment is neither unguessable nor particularly remarkable - a formative withdrawal of warm feelings she's obliged to compensate for with long soaks and frequent sips of Polish vodka - but the film shuffles us rather listlessly towards that realisation. Patterson has been churning out poverty-row fare on the South Coast for a decade now: he enjoyed a measure of critical success with 2018's Tucked, but here directs as tentatively as any debutant, the resultant drama displaying the self-cancelling strengths and weakness that often follow when a filmmaker is scrabbling for resources. The microbudget lands Justine convincingly small and grotty lodgings, but even the perfect day she and Rachel share at the beach seems a little grey and overcast: a humdrum paradise in a humdrum drama. Whenever Patterson pushes for a more dynamic effect - as in an underpass beating late on - the film topples into melodrama, while the ending appears less a directorial choice than a sign the money finally ran out. There are stray flickers of promise along the way. It's clear Patterson knows Brighton like the back of his hand, and he works hard with cinematographer Paul O'Callaghan to make this town seem both a protective bubble (heaven knows what would happen if Justine had got the train up to London) and a potential world's end. He's also assured in his eye for actors: the unconventional, enigmatic Haddon might yet qualify for a Morfydd Clark-in-Saint Maud-like breakout, given more substantial material than she has been here.

Justine will be available to stream from Friday via Curzon Home Cinema.

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