Night of the Live-In Dad
'It's sort of like Aftersun, for the working classes,' said the middle-aged man arriving with his grown-up daughter for a screening of Charlotte Regan's Scrapper: a slightly condescending observation even a priori, I thought, only somewhat mitigated by the ironic grin on his face (although I feel I'm on thin ice myself here, to be honest, not having bothered to go and see Aftersun myself despite all the good reviews it got. Hey ho).
If nothing else, this should tell you that summer is coming to an end and the iron grip that Barbenheimer has exerted over the smaller cinemas is starting to relax, even to the point where things that aren't really what you'd call traditionally commercial are starting to appear. So it is with Scrapper, a film which sometimes seems equidistant between the roles of crowd-pleasing sleeper hit and solid chunk of counter-programming (in places it rather reminded me of Gagarine, a magical-realist French social drama which got wheeled out to perform counter-programming duties while all the multiplexes were showing the last Bond film 45 times a day).
If you just describe the premise of Scrapper, it sounds almost unbearably bleak and grim – Georgie (Lola Campbell) is a 12-year-old girl living on a London housing estate. Her mother has recently passed away, and – unbeknownst to the authorities, or anyone apart from her best friend Ali – she is living alone, working various tricks and scams to establish the existence of a fictitious uncle who is supposedly caring for her, and scraping money together for food and rent by a racket which involves stealing bicycles. (It may be there is a quiet tip of the hat here to the classic Italian neo-realist social drama Bicycle Thieves, but it seems equally likely this is just a coincidence.)
All of this is completely upended by the unexpected arrival of Jason (Harris Dickinson), Georgie's father, whom she is meeting for the first time. He has been leading a rather tenuous existence in Ibiza for the last decade and a bit, and she is by no means delighted when this stranger crashes into her life and starts trying to tell her what to do – especially when it becomes apparent that he is hardly prime parental role-model material itself. This is going somewhere really depressing, isn't it? Isn't it?
It certainly seems that way, but Scrapper isn't the sort of film it probably sounds like – you are in no danger of emerging wanting to open a vein. It's actually an incredibly warm and charming film, with a real brightness and cheekiness about it. Rather than a gloomy documentary about social fragmentation, in places it feels more like a mockumentary or sitcom – Regan batters down the walls of dowdy naturalism by popping in various cartoony vignettes where supporting characters from Georgie's school, the social services, or the surrounding estate, give vox pops to camera about her or her situation, while there's a running gag which (I think) is based around conceit of spiders using social media which is like something out of The Young Ones. The film seldom strays far from this knockabout vein.
Warm, charming, bright, cheeky: describe the film and it does seem like you are compelled to describe Lola Campbell's performance, too – it's an astonishingly winning and precocious performance from someone so young. It's always a surprise when someone so obviously radiating star quality bursts onto the screen, seemingly fully-formed (even as a pre-teen); it's not even as if Campbell has had the chance to learn the ropes doing her apprenticeship on Doctors or Hollyoaks. On the other hand, principal photography on this film was a couple of years ago and there's no sign of anything since, so maybe this is one of those cases of somebody giving a single great performance and then moving on to get a proper job.
In any case, Campbell is brilliant; you can't really discuss the film as separate from her performance, although she isn't quite in every scene. Campbell makes you laugh and root for Georgie when, logically, you should probably be hoping she's either taken into care or sent to a young offender's institution – there's an early scene where a woman comes across her and Ali trying to steal her bike, and Georgie explains what they're actually doing is checking all the bicycles as part of a road safety initiative. It's an absurd attempt at a scam but the woman actually starts falling for it; it's a very funny scene and it mainly works because Campbell is such an incredibly natural performer.
Helping her heft the thing is Harris Dickinson, who is equally convincing as her feckless, and probably clueless, dad. If one of the stupider Inbetweeners grew up it would probably be into someone like him; Dickinson and Campbell have a wonderfully natural chemistry together and there is something quite affecting about seeing them together. This isn't just a father-and-daughter-reconnect story – for one thing, he has no experience of being a parent and she is beginning to forget what it means to be a child, while it's also the case that she is probably at least as mature as him in many ways. This never quite becomes an out-and-out tearjerker, for the relationship is not as conventional as that, but you certainly care about what happens to these two characters.
Scrapper does something which always impresses me: it's a film which repeatedly turns on the spot and switches between modes of comedy and drama without ever crunching the gears. Parts of it are broad and knockabout, other parts are heartfelt and touching – and there's a section towards the end which, to me, was striking almost exactly the same note of metaphorical fantasy as Gagarine, and equally beautifully realised. Regan gets everything pretty much spot on, helped by the casting department playing a series of blinders. This is clearly a fairly low-budget film, filmed on a handful of locations and with only a limited speaking cast, but it's still virtually the definition of being small but perfectly formed. It's a much brighter and more winning film than it probably deserves to be, but that just makes it more likeable.