Tuesday 5 September 2023

Inner city lights: "Scrapper"

To anyone who spent some part of 2002 thinking how good it would be to hear
"Turn the Page", the opening track on The Streets' debut LP "Original Pirate Material", in Dolby stereo on the soundtrack of some gritty British inner city drama: Scrapper's opening credits have you covered. In a debut feature that wears its influences unabashedly on its sleeve, writer-director Charlotte Regan sets out to do more or less what The Streets' Mike Skinner did in recording that musical landmark, namely capture the life in the everyday, and counter any dourly black-and-white perceptions of the inner city with colour and cheek. As with her fellow emergent Charlotte, Aftersun's Wells, Regan comes this way with an eye to working through latent daddy issues (less scarring here, it should be noted, than in the earlier film); she's also another in the recent factory line of British creatives beholden to the pathfinding Andrea Arnold, panning for that poetry in working-class life that went mostly overlooked while the British film industry was the exclusive preserve of middle and upper-class men. Amid her searching, Regan reveals a goofy, occasionally outright scatty sense of humour: a running gag about spiders who communicate in RPG text is so off-radar I suspect only Regan fully gets it. With its zappy cutaways, broad knockabout and little-and-large central odd couple, Scrapper betrays a certain debt to TV comedy: if ever a character played by Daisy May Cooper needs a flashback to reveal some facet of a doubtless misspent youth, Regan's young lead Lola Campbell will almost certainly be called upon. Some of the film's grit, then, turns out to be sugar.

It's been applied like frosting to a sentimental story with roots that can be traced back further still, beyond the East End of Chaplin to the slums of Dickens. Campbell's constitutionally sullen 12-year-old Georgie is a child left behind: abandoned to her own council-estate devices after her mother's death, she sustains herself financially by stealing and reselling bikes with a fellow outcast (Alin Uzun's Ali) and keeps the social services at bay by pretending she's being cared for by her uncle Winston Churchill. (In any other time and place, this latter plot point might feel as wobbly as a loose tooth, but this is Britain in 2023, and how's that working out for you?) Things change with the reappearance of mum's sometime boyfriend and Georgie's biological father Jason, who comes tumbling over the back garden fence - that introductory pratfall, and the fact he's played with an Eminem dye job by British cinema's new poster boy Harris Dickinson, is enough to establish Jason as a rough diamond rather than any predatory threat. Dickinson's deal is blankly boyish charm; he doesn't bring those complicating notes of sexuality the vulpine Michael Fassbender (an executive producer here, coincidentally) lent to Arnold's Fish Tank, and his sweetheart status is officially sealed the minute he presents Georgie with a Colin the Caterpillar birthday cake. (Colin's own big-screen debut, if I'm not mistaken. Your move, Percy Pig.)

In other words, the film keeps getting brighter and lighter. It helps Regan's cause that these particular council houses are painted, inside and out, with the same pretty, Insta-friendly pastel shades you see on sidestreets in Notting Hill, and there's an odd but effective tic in Molly Manning Walker's cinematography: presenting us with an exterior apparently shot at dusk or night, before switching on an extra lamp to reveal this is actually the middle of the day. Lighting as mission statement. Such tactics serve to position Regan as a more optimistic Arnold, whose dreamy filmography has kept snapping violently to, as though becoming aware Ken Loach (and the tradition of realist filmmaking Loach represents) is bearing down on the camera. Regan, by contrast, allows herself to drift off and away: there are elements of the fantastical that go beyond the bored Georgie's imaginings and strike the eye as pure directorial reverie. A spiralling tower of scrap metal - first dreamt up as a means of escape, a fairytale beanstalk; later discovered in a spare bedroom - reminded me of the recent French film Gagarine, which similarly swung between social and magical realism. Regan's vision is smaller and more contained than that: narratively, we're bearing witness to the repair of a tiny tear in the national fabric, a paternal Band-Aid being lovingly applied to a grazed spirit. The film entire is like the bag of dolly mixtures a parent would hand you as reward for enduring a surgery appointment, and you may well require a sweet tooth for fullest enjoyment. But Regan's optimism does feel like a boon in the current moment - and who's to say dolly mixtures shouldn't have their place in British cinema, alongside the perennial humbugs and Werther's Originals?

Scrapper is now playing in selected cinemas.

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