The debut feature of Charlotte Regan, a 29-year-old Londoner who has spent most of her career directing music videos for local rappers, doesn’t stray far from her stomping ground. Scrapper, which won a Grand Jury Prize at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, takes place in east London, where a scrappy 12-year-old, Georgie (newcomer Lola Campbell), grieving the recent loss of her mother to cancer, insists on bringing herself up on her own. As the first intertitle says, crossing out “It takes a village to raise a child”: “I’ll raise myself thanks.” She and her best friend, the slightly older Ali (another newcomer, Alin Uzun) run a stolen-bikes ring, as Georgie persuades clueless social workers that she’s staying with her uncle, “Winston Churchill”.
Despite her dogged and careful self-reliance – compulsively vacuuming the flat, speaking with a persuasive power far beyond her years, even convincing a woman that she isn’t in the process of stealing her bike – a man shows up. Georgie’s 30-year-old father (Harris Dickinson, of Triangle of Sadness) returns one day from Spain, ready to make good. That won’t be so easy: Georgie, tiny even for her age, is dead set on her independence. Will she succeed in driving her father away? Obviously not – slowly but surely, she opens up to him, and they discover that they have far more in common than they thought, a phrase which is stated nearly verbatim. There are few surprises in Scrapper, except its sickly sweetness: the girl is pushy but sweet, the friend is messy but sweet, the father is tough but sweet. Everyone is sweet: so is its twee style.
Some critics have pointed out that Scrapper bears an unfortunate resemblance to the Scottish newcomer Charlotte Wells’s movie of last year Aftersun, which also concerns a girl’s relationship with her very young father. The comparison isn’t quite fair – the world has room for more than two British women to make films about British girls and their fathers. Nor does Variety’s description of it as a “blend of Ken Loach and Wes Anderson” seem right. If I were in that game, I’d wager that Scrapper’s plot more resembles Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, another – though very different– film about a poor young woman in London chafing at a father figure (and she also likes to dance!). And it’s impossible to look at this candy-coloured film, where an impoverished childhood has an air of magic, without thinking of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project.
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It would be unfair to call Scrapper derivative because of its content – but the script is predictable at times. When Georgie, a few minutes into the film, finishes hoovering, we see her cross out “bargaining” on a flier on the stages of grief. Her teacher, in a mockumentary sequence that frames the film, complains that, “It doesn’t take an entire day to grieve – take the morning off.” Georgie’s dialogue is inauthentic: she tells her father: “You think you can just show up with a bunch of flowers?” To a friend she says: “I don’t need you to replace Mum. But I need someone.” In real life, people are not so practised, nor so coherent. Scrapper, like many recent festival-circuit films – Aftersun, Petite Maman, Minari – places a child at the centre. But the task of writing children is more demanding than writing adults: 12-year-olds don’t use therapy-speak.
The majority of Regan’s experience is in music videos, and Scrapper – like Aftersun, and so many films today – leans heavily on visual flourishes, diminishing the emotional impact of its impressive performances. The action is commented on by groups of peripheral characters – a gang of local girls, a group of black boys on bikes, her teacher, even those incompetent social workers – and if that wasn’t cute enough, their clothes are, respectively, all pink, all yellow, all green and all grey. Oh, and that mockumentary is filmed in Super 8. Even the spiders on the walls get their say, told through thought bubbles that appear on the screen as video-game music plays (à la Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs the World). When Georgie and Ali imagine what her father might be like – vampire, criminal – we of course cut to shots of him in corresponding costumes. Quoting Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, Georgie and her father do funny walks on opposite sidewalks. Shots are often symmetrical.
In the final scene, father and daughter, happily united, paint the walls yellow. It isn’t allowed to breathe: instead, we return to the mockumentary, with its over-the-top humour. These devices are certainly cute and playful – but they obscure the film’s serious themes of family, disease and poverty.
“Scrapper” is in cinemas from 25 August
This article appears in the 23 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Britain’s Exclusive Sect