British-Nigerian playwright Adura Onashile (‘Expensive Shit’) transitions to the big screen with a first film that’s based on her own experiences growing up with her single mum in a Glaswegian block of flats in the 1980s. She's updated the story with relevant contemporary references, including the Grenfell fire. It feels zeitgeisty, although never journalistic or campaigning. Almost uniquely, this tale of African immigrants in social housing isn’t an exercise in miserablism; instead, Onashile crafts a sympathetic, poetic and empathetic portrait of a relationship between mother and daughter, with the emphasis on love and protection.
But as we discover through snippets of flashbacks, there is also trauma. It arises as African immigrant Grace (Dèborah Lukumuena, the César-winning find from 2016's excellent Divines) walks the city streets. Every loud noise, lit cigarette, or raucous group of locals creates anxiety. Grace is a cleaner who works night shifts, forced to navigate the city despite only feeling safe behind closed doors. Everyone is untrustworthy, even those showing genuine warmth and sympathy. The psychological scars are deep.
Eleven-year-old Ama (newcomer Le'Shantey Bonsu) is the eponymous ‘girl’. She's been skipping school, which has sparked social services into action, with the mother and daughter hiding whenever they hear a dreaded knock on the door. When Ama is forced back into the outside world, she is a curious creature, befriending a neighbour (Liana Turner) and showing a need for independence. It’s fuel to the fire for her angst-ridden mother.
Almost uniquely, this tale of African immigrants isn't an exercise in miserablism
Girl makes us want to feel for Grace and Ama by painting their world together in warm colours, while cinematographer Tasha Back brings out stabs of reds when Grace steps outside. But cinema can be a tricky, unforgiving medium for showing that our biggest battles are often with ourselves, and for all the promise of Onashile’s debut, an understated second half makes it something of an acquired taste.
Girl premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.