It’s no surprise that Charlotte Regan’s Scrapper should be drawing comparisons with Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun (2022): two debut features by young British directors, featuring dysfunctional fathers trying to bond with early teenage daughters. For reasons that remain mysterious to me, Aftersunhas generated an inordinate amount of gush from critics who seem to believe that vagueness, grainy visuals and an abundance of hand-held camera are the ingredients of a cinematic masterpiece.
The earlier Charlotte’s success has had a negative impact on the reception afforded to Scrapper, which many reviewers simply cannot allow to be on the same plane as Aftersun. I’d argue that Scrapper is far superior. Not only is the image quality much crisper, there’s a constant sense of humor that doesn’t detract from the underlying drama of an immature father striving to reconnect with a child for whom he is a virtual stranger. It also requires a standard of acting that brings out the best in the two leads.
Twelve-year-old Lola Campbell, who plays Georgie, is a real discovery – a precocious talent with mobile, expressive features, a sharp tongue and a hearing aid. Although it’s always dangerous to make predictions with child actors, this should be the beginning of a long career. Her father, Jason, is played by Harris Dickinson, familiar from last year’s Triangle of Sadness. As an insecure adult trying to act the parent while being systematically rejected by a stroppy, resentful daughter, his role requires a subtle hand. Both characters need to find two faces, maintaining an impression of strength and indfference, while being inwardly torn.
When we meet Georgie she is living alone in a small terrace house in Dagenham, one of London’s less salubrious outer suburbs. She is strenuously vacuuming and ticking off boxes on a piece of paper that reads: Stages of Grief. Her mother has just died of cancer, and Georgie has managed to fool the school social workers into believing she is now living with her uncle, “Winston Churchill”. The dopiness of the social workers is a running gag that must strike a chord with British audiences.
Georgie maintains this deception by getting the man at the corner store to record banal sentences, which she then plays over the phone to would-be helpers. She ekes out a living by stealing bicycles in partnership with her only friend, a boy called Ali (Alin Uzin), and selling them to a local fence. The story is punctuated with split screen inserts and quick cutaways, in which Georgie’s schoolmates speak about her, as if being interviewed for a documentary. Apparently, she is weird, aggressive and difficult and they don’t much like her.
One day, while Georgie and Ali are planning their next bicycle heist, a man with a short, peroxide hairdo lifts himself over the back fence. It’s Jason, Georgie’s biological father who hasn’t been around since she was a baby. He has spent the past decade in Ibiza, partying and working casual jobs.
When Jason announces that he’s here to look after Georgie, she tells him she’s doing fine all by herself. She has no need of a dud dad with no money, no job and dubious cooking skills. Where was he for the past ten years? Did he ever help with upkeep? Did he make any attempt to stay in touch? It’s a bit much to just come striding back into the household when Georgie has everything running so smoothly.
Naturally, this isn’t exactly the truth. Georgie is living a perilous existence, keeping the social workers at bay while scraping by on the proceeds of petty crime. Jason, however, is so ashamed of his shortcomings as a father, he is unable to take Georgie in hand. If anything, he is intimidated by her intelligence, her stubbornness, and her snappy comebacks. Rather than putting an end to the bicycle business, he contributes advice and assistance, leading to a narrow squeak with the police.
Meanwhile, we are made aware that Georgie’s toughness conceals a huge burden of sadness. She sits in an alley, late at night, looking at videos of her mother on her phone. She has taken over the main bedroom, creating a junk tower of old bicycle wheels and other debris that she intends to extend through the ceiling.
The fantasy tower, the split screens, and peculiar fact that all the spiders in the house have names, and tell us their thoughts in little squares of text, add a “magical realist” dimension to the story. These are not the kind of things one would expect to find in a typical British social realist drama by Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. They are legacies of the music videos and short films Regan made in the lead-up to this feature.
I’m obliged to wonder whether Georgie’s chosen profession as a bicycle thief, isn’t an implicit take on Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist classic. In Bicycle Thieves (1948), the impoverished hero is the victim of crime. In Scrapper, we see the action from the viewpoint of the poor but resourceful criminal.
A background in video clips can be a mixed blessing for aspiring filmmakers, but in Regan’s case it has instilled a desire to be brisk and entertaining. At only 84 minutes, Scrapper is roughly half as long as most of the films coming out of Hollywood nowadays. Where the other Charlotte’s Aftersun is washed-out and fuzzy, wrapping the entire story in the mists of memory, this Charlotte prefers clear, bright colours. Georgie’s small terrace is canary yellow, a shade that recurs on many occasions.
It’s easy to see where this story is going. It would take the Coen brothers to derail a plot so obviously tending in one direction. The pleasure for the viewer is to watch the gradual coming-together of two characters who spend much of the movie in an antagonistic relationship. The big discovery – and this is no spoiler – is that Georgie and Jason have a lot more in common than they first believed. We see the similarities when Jason draws his grumpy daughter into some improvised theatre at the train station. No longer opponents, they are suddenly conspirators. It’s a brilliant, memorable scene.
When one reflects on the underpinnings of this story – dead mother, abandoned child, dysfunctional father, poverty and crime – it has all the makings of a tragedy. Instead, Scrapper is constantly animated by a spirit of fun, as if Regan and her team couldn’t bring themselves to dwell too long on the sad bits. The outcome is a film that will charm anyone who is willing to be charmed.
Written & directed by Charlotte Regan
Starring: Lola Campbell, Harris Dickinson, Alin Uzin, Ambreen Razia, Cary Crankson, Freya Bell, Aylin Tezel, Carys Bowkett
UK, PG, 84 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 23 September, 2023