Turgoose plays David, a taciturn teen whose life in a drab Norfolk caravan park is brightened by his friendship with mouthy, independent scrapper Emily (Holly Grainger). When her parents threaten to split them up, Holly takes drastic action and fakes her disappearance, hiding out in a nearby cave and choosing David as her only link with the outside world. But as their companionship develops – in David’s mind, at least – into something more serious, his emotional state becomes increasingly unstable.
Harper and screenwriter Jack Thorne’s triumph in ‘The Scouting Book for Boys’ is to nail adolescent romantic obsession: that feeling of swooning desperation that comes with unrequited love. This is a film dripping with nostalgia – not the cheap, wistful kind, more a heartfelt but unsentimental longing for the moral clarity and emotional intensity of childhood, however painful it might have been at the time.
‘Fish Tank’ cinematographer Robbie Ryan repeats the remarkable trick he pulled off in that film by being simultaneously realistic and poetic, drenching the jagged contours and concrete structures of the English coastline in warm, honeyed light. The soundtrack is less succesful: Harper’s largely acoustic song choices err towards the winsome – and occasionally the downright awful – which punctures the meticulously sustained, sun-kissed mood.
But a film about teenagers stands or falls on its performances, and here ‘The Scouting Book for Boys’ succeeds admirably. Turgoose executes his customary balancing act between naturalism and outright performance, and it’s becoming increasingly hard to see the joins: his turn here is far more downbeat and restrained than we’re used to. Grainger is magnificent as Emily, switching from cold disdain to grasping helplessness in an eyeblink. Their relationship is beautifully developed and wholly believable.
Thorne and Harper take a series of perilous narrative risks in the final act, the perceived success or failure of which will depend on an audience’s willingness to follow them into some surprisingly dark and challenging emotional territory. But even if some of his choices fail to convince completely, Harper has done enough with this striking, ambitious debut to herald the arrival of a major new filmmaking talent.