Sundance: A seemingly orphaned 12-year-old learns that her father may be criminal Harris Dickinson in this wisecracking British charmer.
From Pitsea train station in south central Essex, about 25 miles from London, you can get to many places. Trains go further south to the industrial port of Tilbury, east to the seaside paradise of Southend (my home, of course) and of course the Big Smoke a few minutes west. Georgie (newcomer Lola Campbell), a 12-year-old girl who has been riding through the stages of grief since losing her mother to an unspecified illness, has been unable to care for her. The cookie-cutter estate where Georgie lives alone is all she needs. Debut director Charlotte Regan and DP Molly Manning Walker make it feel like the whole Earth is there. Georgie’s self-contained world equates to fierce self-reliance. His primary caregiver is Georgie, in addition to his uncle, the fictional Winston Churchill. Even with Britain’s notoriously stretched public services, children should not have to live alone.
Does not matter. With her pal Ali (Alin Uzun) and a camera roll full of videos of her mother to keep her company, Georgie doesn’t seem particularly lonely, even during the six-week summer break from school when “Scrapper” is set. Georgie can even pay the rent with the cash she earns from selling the stolen bikes. But mum hasn’t completely disappeared: the sofa cushions are kept just as she liked them, her favorite mugs are left intact and Georgie’s outfit is centered around mum’s 1995-96 West Ham United home shirt. .
Then father Jason (Harris Dickinson) jumps over the back fence for the first time and into Georgie’s life. Returning from Ibiza, where he worked as a club promoter and (supposedly) lookalike of English soccer star Phil Foden, Jason is ready for the next phase of his life: fatherhood. Or so he thinks. What happens when your child has his own ideas? Georgie isn’t fooled by her father’s gold chain or tattoo either: she has almost as much growing up to do as he does. It helps that they speak the same language. Teenage Jason rationalizes his return in precocious terms: “This is my home,” he announces. “I was here before you.” He also once owned the West Ham shirt.
But they bond in a bike-stealing way, with Jason missing out on Fagin Georgie’s Artful Dodger. Finally, they also talk about Georgie’s mother, Vicky (Olivia Brady).
Certainly set in the last decade (there are smartphones and voice memos), Jason’s shaky hairdo and old-school references help give “Scrapper” a decidedly ’90s feel. Georgie’s West Ham shirt and wall-mounted kitchen phone suggest a bygone era, while her habit of shouting outside Ali’s house for a spontaneous conversation is rather nostalgic.
There is nothing political about this either; on the contrary. Regan’s film is imbued with the kind of timelessness that has enabled Britain’s long love affair with television period dramas. He may be aboard the Titanic after it hit the iceberg, but today’s anxieties don’t matter, innocence is not yet lost.
And while “Scrapper” — and Georgie — have rough edges, Regan’s film is remarkably tender without being cloying. His wry observations are more effective than the big emotional swings that “Scrapper” sometimes — but not often — opts for. As it’s the British debut of a female director about a father-daughter relationship, ‘Scrapper’ has already been compared to Charlotte Wells’ feisty ‘Aftersun’ (mainly of course by those trying to sell the film; almost all films should be like that. lucky you) .
In fact, there is almost nothing like it. Where “Aftersun” uncomfortably probes emotional depths, “Scrapper” wisely stays out of touch. I found myself rooting for her characters to be okay in the end. It’s not a spoiler to say that they essentially are. This isn’t the kind of movie where there’s huge stakes immediately: young Georgie has already taken the biggest emotional hit of her life and, as she less confidently asserts, has moved past denial, anger and bargaining. Only depression and acceptance.
The blandness of “Scrapper” should not be mistaken for Regan’s lack of ambition. Georgie and Jason have a little less trouble. Dickinson is wonderfully natural as a simple person with nothing to hide. When Georgie finds a bullet in her bag, she and Ali think he’s trying to kill her. Jason takes Georgie on the train to the suburbs where he grew up and reveals that he found the cartridge while metal detecting as a boy.
Georgie has reason to be angry, though. Jason, now 30, drowned around the time Georgie was born. “We were kids,” Jason says, a crude explanation of his immaturity, which also reminds us that he was closer to Georgie then than to his current self. And like Georgie, she’s a bit of a scratcher herself. Regan doesn’t judge her characters so much as introduce us and let us come to love them. Campbell and Dickinson duly oblige.
While it doesn’t aspire to the dramatic highs and lows its actors could possibly pull off, “Scrapper” is a smart, sensitive debut and a promising arrival from its talented director.
“Scrapper” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently distributed in the United States.