We’ve been lucky to experience a wealth of striking debut films by British female directors over the past few years. Some trade in devastating arthouse aesthetics, like Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, Georgia Oakley’s Blue Jean, or Cannes prizewinner How to Have Sex by Molly Manning Walker. Some lean into intense genre sensibilities to tell original and memorable stories, like Saint Maud (Rose Glass), Rye Lane (Raine Allen-Miller), and Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell). Scrapper, the debut from acclaimed shorts director Charlotte Regan, couldn’t have come at a better moment, sitting somewhere in the middle of poppy and arthouse – telling a small-scale story of a precocious 12-year-old confronting her father’s absence on a council estate after her mother passed.
Scrapper is eye-catching, painting its working-class estate in pastel colors, diving into the mind of its protagonist, Georgie (Lola Campbell), with the help of video-game dialogue boxes and her neighbors fleshed out in When Harry Met Sally-esque testimonials shot in charming vignetted aspect ratios. There’s a lot of MTV music video DNA in Regan’s visuals, a fittingly animated way to depict the world of a secretly-lost-at-sea pre-teen. But there’s a critical difference between an overblown but psychologically revealing style and one that insists upon itself – Scrapper struggles to balance aesthetics that demand attention with emotional plotting that aims for graceful simplicity but ends up frustratingly slight.
Georgie, clad in a West Ham shirt she doesn’t know belongs to her absent father, lives alone after her mum succumbed to illness. She nicks and fences bikes to pay rent and gets the clerk at the corner shop to pretend to be a relative to trick social workers that she’s being cared for. Together with her friend Ali (Alin Uzun), she maintains a front of self-sufficiency that we know, if she doesn’t, can’t last forever. The first act patiently lays out the whole ecosystem of Georgie’s life, a vibrant and hermetically-sealed bubble that, under the glitz and pep, acts like a purgatory for the necessary emotional growth she must soon face.
Campbell’s performance anchors Scrapper’s narrative, drama, tone – pretty much everything. In her hands, Georgie is energetic, anarchic, combative, and very, very funny; she talks with a confidence we grownups can scarcely dream of. Even if Regan’s talent for feature screenwriting and tonal balance lack polish, she can direct child actors like a master. Regan is wise to ultimately trust the young performer with the heavy dramatic lifting in Scrapper’s climax – it’s a shame the climactic drama itself is anything but weighty.
After a tremendous breakout year in 2022, Triangle of Sadness and Where the Crawdads Sing star Harris Dickinson steps into the troubled young father role assumed in recent years by Paul Mescal and James Norton. Jason arrives with bleach-blond hair and stunted, awkward sentences, and our assumption that he’ll fail to amount to anything more than a deadbeat is encouraged by the fact that he’s been in Ibiza for Georgie’s entire lifetime.
It’s clear father and daughter will not immediately hit it off, and Georgie’s instinctive resentment of someone who abandoned her attempting to dictate her independence is entirely justified. But Jason’s arrival marks the start of a period of stasis in Scrapper’s narrative, where neither party is willing to budge to accommodate the other, and the story is grounded to a halt.
When Georgie and Jason start to bond, it’s amicable enough; they imagine the lives of better-off passersby and invite each other into their hobbies – with father wisely letting his daughter roast him as much as she’d like. A problem only arises when it becomes clear that this is the only way Regan can imagine them bridging their vast emotional gulf. We sit and watch the pair, one playing an adult and the other a manchild, riff and improv between each other using every variety of indie film shorthand for “these people are closer now,” complete with an obligatory spontaneous dance scene.
Visually, with its crisp composition and multicolored vistas (Scrapper was shot by How to Have Sex’s Walker), the film tells us that bright new horizons are being reached. Still, the film too carefully skits across the top of actual emotional resonance, never plunging us into the thorny, complicated reality of Georgie’s life. In one scene, the most stylistically inventive of the whole film, we get an insight into the obsessive compulsions and fixations of Georgie’s mind, the only outlet for which she seems to be lashing out violently. But the moment arrives too late in the story to meaningfully inform her character or be properly unpacked.
While the final moments, including a discovery of why Georgie has created the indoor scrapheap referenced in the title, offer much-needed non-verbal characterization, despite the overblown style, Scrapper feels the cameras started rolling on a script draft too early. Still, Regan’s promising talent all but guarantees a sterling film in the not-too-distant future, and in a year where the prestige distribution treatment is guaranteed to female filmmakers to yet show interest in the working-class experience, something as small-but-fierce as Scrapper is worth some attention.
Scrapper arrives in limited release in theaters on Friday, August 25, 2023, and will be available as a streaming rental on VOD.