It’s been five years since Theresa May, the United Kingdom’s first prime minister in the post-Brexit era, invented the term “citizen of nowhere” to disparage those who identified more globally.
These three phrases quickly became a media catchphrase to describe the Conservative government’s seeming antipathy toward immigrants; global corporations with liberal values adopted the term as a badge of honor.
Yet for the disgruntled émigré who can’t return home and hasn’t found a home in the United Kingdom either, this identity is not so simple to claim The timid, fragile mother and daughter at the center of Adura Onashile’s sympathetic character study “Girl” adapt to their relocation from West Africa to working-class Glasgow by making their world as small as possible, scarcely extending past the front door of their dingy council accommodation.
The gradual, agonizing steps they take toward social integration — severing some apron strings knotted suffocatingly tight by trauma — mark the subtle arc of the drama in this accomplished but unspectacular debut feature from Onashile, a British-Nigerian playwright here lightly expanding on themes introduced in her laudable 2020 short “Expensive Shit.”
If only “Girl” had a more evocative title: the film’s social shadings and neon-bright impressionistic aesthetic exude a serene confidence that is misrepresented by the film’s name.
On a narrative level, though, this tight 84-minute drama sags a bit, occasionally resembling a short film notion populated solely by brilliant texture.
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That will not prevent Onashile’s Sundance competition premiere from making an impression at more festivals and with select independent distributors; a warm welcome awaits when it opens the Glasgow festival next month.
Historically, the most populated city in Scotland has been portrayed on film with a gloomy harshness, exemplified by Andrea Arnold’s seminal debut “Red Road.”
In collaboration with DP Tasha Back, Onashile casts it in a figuratively different light, seeking out brilliant jewel tones in its nighttime street life and the lurid oases of color — a shiny pink puffer jacket, a small ocean of eye shadow, and loud tangles of graffiti — that its residents create among its more squalid corners.
Perhaps those are the highlights that single mother Grace (a superb Deborah Lukuemena) tries to see in a world so much darker and colder than her rural African birthplace; initially, she and her 11-year-old daughter Ama (Le’Shantey Bonsu) paint their apartment in saturated tones of red earth and aubergine, making it a refuge from the gloomy exterior.
Similarly, Ré Olunuga’s score links divergent cultures by blending majestic orchestrations with African-inspired beats and percussion: perhaps distant sounds of home for Grace.
After what is presumed to have been a difficult journey from Africa, prompted by patriarchal aggression and abuse alluded to in progressively frightening memories, it is not unexpected that these two survivors have made their humble home their castle.
Grace’s crippling anxiety, however, has transformed the home into a fortress, with the housebound, school-evading Ama forbidden from opening the door to anyone. Grace only leaves for her dismal night stints as a shopping center cleaner.
Ama’s cover is blown when she reports a fire in the opposite apartment building to the authorities, much to her mother’s dismay. But while school offers the alienation and otherness they anticipated, it also brings Ama an unexpected ally in the form of her neighbor and classmate Fiona (Liana Turner).
What happens is an increasingly tense tug-of-war as Grace, still in her mid-twenties but aged and plagued with pain, opposes her daughter’s growing independence, dreading the repercussions on their relationship if just one of them begins to fit in.
It’s a touching parental dilemma, but as a dramatic conflict, it’s not nearly enough to propel the second half of “Girl,” in which characters’ gradual shifts in regard and viewpoint stand in for huge events.
With a frequently short script, Lukumuena’s nuanced acting accomplishes much of the hard lifting: The French actor, best known for her vivaciously humorous, César-winning supporting performance in 2016’s “Divines,” is just as captivating in a more subdued, even recessive tone, as a stoically proud, often neurotic mother.
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She is effectively mirrored by newcomer Bonsu, who increases in stature and expressiveness as Ama opens herself to the outer world. A simple smile is hard-won in this serious, straightforward, and finely observed debut, which promises not an excessively joyful ending but at least better days for two no longer-adrift denizens of nowhere.
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Girl Film Trailer
Is Girl Based on a Real-life Incident?
Nora Monsecour, a Belgian transgender dancer whom Dhont met when he was 18 and she was 15, served as the inspiration for Girl. Some trans and queer writers criticized the film for its portrayal of gender dysphoria and self-harm, which was initially praised by critics.
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