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15 May 2024

Hoard is a daringly original British film

Lewisham-born director Luna Carmoon has called her debut, about a young woman in foster care, “this thing that encompasses all of my essence”.

By David Sexton

Hoard, which received a standing ovation at the 2023 Venice Film Festival, was originally conceived as a suicide note. Its writer and director, Luna Carmoon, now 26, held nothing back when speaking to the film magazine A Rabbit’s Foot recently. “I thought, I don’t want to be here any more, so I’m going to write this thing that encompasses all of my essence, and then leave it at the bottom of the bed and be done with my life.”

She initially wrote Hoard in just a fortnight, as a 20-page story, in 2020, driven back on herself, as many were then. “The past comes out to play when you can’t rely on routine, and that happened to a lot of us during lockdown,” she says. “It was an exorcism of myself.”

Hoard is a bizarre combination of highly accomplished film-making and completely raw subject matter. In 1984, in the Downham Estate in Lewisham, seven-year-old Maria (Lily-Beau Leach) lives with her mother, Cynthia (Hayley Squires), in both love and madness. They spend the nights out on the street, collecting up all kinds of rubbish in a shopping trolley, playing games and chanting rhymes together (“I’m the king of the castle, you’re the dirty rascal”). Their home is a tip, literally, piled high with their garbage finds, stinking, unsafe and insanitary, infested with rats, mice and maggots. It’s skin-crawling to watch.

Maria, exhausted, is failing at school and turns on Cynthia. “Why do we have this? Other people’s lives don’t have this.” Yet, knowing no other life, she remains entranced by her vivacious mother, captivated by her rituals and lunacies. And then Cynthia’s hoard collapses on her. Maria is taken into care.

Ten years later, Maria (now played by Saura Lightfoot-Leon) is living with a warm-hearted foster mother, Michelle (Samantha Spiro), and seems to be doing OK as she finishes school. She has a close relationship with a sparky Kurdish girl, Laraib (Deba Hekmat). Both of Luna Carmoon’s previous short films, Nosebleed of 2018 and Shagbands of 2020, funded by Film4 and Creative UK, have been about girlhood friendships confronted by male violence.

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Maria’s sanity is fragile. Laraib is sent away by her strict father. One of Michelle’s previous foster children, hunky bin man Michael (Joseph Quinn, Stranger Things), nearly 30, comes to stay while he looks for accommodation. Meeting him while sprawled on the stairs one night, zonked out of her mind, her first assumption is that he is going to rape her.

Over the following months they begin a sick relationship, tethered together, confused and inarticulate, full of aggression, fighting each other, throwing food, turning sadomasochistic. Maria, having seen Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum on TV as a kid, inducts Michael into some of its twisted scenes of permanent childhood, such as drooling into sherbet and then licking it back up.

The film is astonishingly vivid, involving and affecting. This is fully realised, highly original cinema of a kind rarely seen from contemporary British film-makers (Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun excepted). Carmoon (born Hollie Moore) is a film junkie and she is, with due deference to Andrea Arnold, contemptuous of the past decade of UK cinema. Instead, she prefers the vibrancy and revolt of the Sixties and Seventies, even unto Ken Russell, and that is what she has recreated here.

Hoard uses extreme colour and lighting changes to transform scenes. The filming is close and the cuts abrupt, yet the rhythm is assured; the soundtrack is peculiarly evocative, mixing past and present. If the dialogue is often hard to grasp, it’s because these are people who live in their bodies, not their words. The setting, in the part of Lewisham where Carmoon grew up, is completely natural, rather than expeditionary in the mode of Ken Loach.

The acting Carmoon has conjured is remarkable too. Saura Lightfoot-Leon brings surprising grace to mucky, mad Maria; Joseph Quinn succeeds against the odds in making Michael almost sympathetic, despite Carmoon’s repulsion. (“The idea of Michael came out of the fact that I’d never met a man or a boy who, when I was left alone in a space with them, I didn’t feel like they were going to assault me and hurt me.”) So, backed by the BBC and the BFI, here’s a really striking feature debut by a very young director. Whether or not this act of exorcism means that Carmoon can now progress her talent from such personal subject matter remains to be seen. She is reported to be developing a literary adaptation next.

“Hoard” is in cinemas now

[See also: What Challengers understands about tennis]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink