‘Perfect 10’, the debut feature film from Scottish director and screenwriter Eva Riley in 2019, premiered at the BFI London Film Festival, and she is currently developing her new feature film ‘The Circle’ with BBC films and developing her first TV project. Not quite a perfect 10 in itself, but the new director certainly breaks through with aplomb in her first feature.
Made in the style of social realism, the film is texturally ‘Loachian’ in that it evokes real and raw performances from both leads; it has a documentary-feel, with dialogue, which is far from being word or pitch perfect but helps channel the gritty and harsh reality of the main protagonists. The film acts as a social and political medium for Riley who has much to say about the conditions and pressures young people find themselves in contemporary society.
The film has all the hallmarks of an Indie film. It uses natural lighting and reflects the hue of a British summer with real location shots, such as being shot in real houses, streets and a gymnasium. It inhabits a real 3D concrete world; and possesses a happenstance quality how events are conveyed and how we emotionally connect with the Lea and Joe.
It sympathetically deals with a ‘type’ of young, working class experience and shows how events lead to different paths. In some ways if fills McCabe’s criteria, by having social commentary within a contemporary situation, with as little artifice as possible. The dialogue is naturalised and ‘unscripted’ and action sequences are not the conventional big set pieces conventional films are hinged upon.
However, the film is formulaic and conventional in some ways. It follows Todorov’s Equilibrium-Disequilibrium-New Equilibrium model, in that the Lea’s equilibrium is disrupted by the unexpected appearance of her (until then, unknown) half-brother Joe. However, the audience is denied a privileged spectator position in that we hear his version of events leading to his arrival but with no ways of confirming or denying why he is estranged from his mother.
In this respect the plot continues conventionally because it leads to a journey to a new equilibrium, where she returns where she began, but events mean this cannot be the same. However, the film is clever at giving a voice to the young protagonists and whilst they lack the linguistic codes to explain their situation and reasoning in detail, there is a pivotal scene which shows Joe as extremely conscious of his and Lea’s predicament. In one scene their father is telling stories about how Lea as a five-year old used to run around naked for ‘no reason’. The inappropriateness of the conversation, especially with Lea in earshot, highlights the awkward father-son relationship. Joe adds to the conversation recalling how he used run around screaming for no reason. His Dad naïvely asks why, and he answers humorously and incisively stating, ‘because you weren’t around!’
This is an important social commentary and shows how acutely young people people think about the world and their place in it. As toddlers, both siblings exhibited unusual behaviours, which may have been as a result of the environments they were brought up in. It’s a comment about family structures that appear to be broken and it his statement, which he tries to retract as a joke, which hits a raw nerve with the father who knows that his children, for right and wrong are products of their upbringing. The implication is that turbulent family lives create a vast number of social issues, including Joe’s anti-social behaviour and criminal activities.
The film cleverly juxtaposes his natural father with the gang leader, who Joe wants to please by completing tasks, such as stealing fuel and motorcycles. His father, who is clearly upset by Joe’s implication walks out of the house (an allegory of his parenting style). He knows Joe is speaking the truth and it is a tacit acknowledgement that he knows he has failed in his nurturing role. In sociology there is overwhelming statistical evidence that children with disrupted family homes go on and experience lots of other problems, but the real revelation is Joe recognises who/what he is and has chosen his path. Likewise, Lea chooses to be part of the gang and uses her gymnastic skills to ‘good use’ when she breaks in and enters their victim’s house. She is not cajoled into it nor can she resist the lure of the rewards it may bring, such as acceptance of her brother’s surrogate family and a few quid.
What the film does really well is humanise the plight of these young people without moralising or being polemical. It shows that young people are rational actors who base their choices on the environment they’re in and their trajectories. Unfortunately, Joe’s surrogate family, is also unstable especially after Joe confronts the gang leader who becomes intimate with Lea. After this, Joe decides to leave home and appeals to Lea to pursue her life outside of the gang. It is clear, that despite being short-lived, their bond is strong, and Joe sees that she should use her exceptional talents legitimately. It was a pleasing conclusion to a story that most often ends tragically.
On a negative note, there are moments it feels a bit like ‘poverty porn’; dialogue in places is incredibly stilted and stereotypically limited; it seems that the main characters are incapable of expressing themselves other than through criminal and anti-social behaviour, ‘banter’ and getting drunk. Whilst this may be ‘a truth’ it is not a full picture of working-class youth culture.
In terms of rating the film, it is a product of a sub-genre, whereby we expect social issues to be portrayed with authenticity. It does this well, without being overwhelming. As I mentioned earlier, some aspects and characterisation feel unduly limiting but there was enough to root for the main protagonists especially Lea and the people supporting her.
How did the audience react? I looked at it as a film student, so I tried to look at it critically and probably took a negotiated position. I can see what the film is trying to do and how it does it and I think it does it very well. However, I do know that some audiences will react strongly against it. For those with more conservative views, they may feel that it documents the social ills of society but may complain that it romanticises ‘Chav’ culture. Without a comeuppance, it leaves the story in the air and morally ambiguous. However, it is thought-provoking, and if it helps an audience think a little more about these scenarios, the director has done her job well.