Runtime: 76 minutes
Directors: Darragh Carey & Bertrand Desrochers
Writers: Rupert Baynham, Darragh Carey & Chi Mai
Stars: Lily Newmark, Ola Orebiyi, Jaime Winston, Michael Maloney, Craig Middleburg, Barney Harris, Dexter Padmore
By Calum Cooper
“A Brixton Tale” (2021) does indeed take place in its titular setting, but its themes go far beyond its location. Here is a film that takes a chosen place and the characters associated within it, and uses it to explore further realms that could be suitable anywhere. It is a confident, thought-provoking piece of film that, if nothing else, serves as quite the platform for its cast.
The film stars Lily Newmark, best known for Deborah Haywood’s “Pin Cushion” (2018), which is a criminally underrated film that I’ll never stop trying to give exposure to. Newmark plays Leah, a budding filmmaker living in Brixton, who takes a liking to the streetwise Benji (Ola Orebiyi). She is looking for a subject to film for a documentary project, and, seeing Benji’s quiet interior against his mate Archie’s (Craig Middleburg) all bark and no bite exterior, she decides to make him the central star. She and Benji form a connection, despite the presence of Leah’s camera everywhere. But when their worlds collide the consequences are drastic.
Much like Cornwall is at the heart of Mark Jenkin’s “Bait” (2019) and its identity, so too is Brixton in “A Brixton Tale”. But, through the lens of this film, Brixton is very much a place of extremes regarding the class system, something the central characters reflect. Leah is from a wealthy family – one that boasts not only connections for her media studies classes, but also plenty of camera and editing equipment for her to experiment with her filmmaking to her heart’s content. Benji, meanwhile, lives in all but squalor, sharing a tiny, dingy flat with his mother, who is rarely seen not working to exhaustion in her restaurant, and has to rely on the gang culture and violence perpetuated by his cousin to get any kind of footing in the world. Leah is from a world of privilege, and so sees Benji and how his quiet gentleness contrasts with his unchosen lifestyle as documentary gold.
Directors Carey and Desrochers take Leah and Benji’s chosen worlds and smash them together to create interesting drama and rich thematic talking points. While Leah initially comes into Benji’s world with an ignorance on what it is truly like, she begins to appreciate Benji more for who he is and not the environment he has unwittingly become a part of. Benji meanwhile is taken aback by the entitlement and rudeness that many of Leah’s wealthy friends exude, particularly that of Charles (Barney Harris), whose disgusting actions instigate much of the film’s third act.
“A Brixton Tale” is empathetic, smartly crafted, and breezily paced at 76 minutes. It’s an interesting story on love and circumstance that also serves as a layered critique on filmmaking ethics and classism.
Gentrification seems to be on the minds of the filmmakers here, and it is highlighted strikingly by the editing and cinematography, both of which are brought to life by a mix of third person camerawork and the first person footage of Leah’s own video camera. However, the film is very interested in exploring how people are affected by this, while making it clear that they do not get a choice in where they are born or how this affects them. Benji has a rather compelling moment where he proclaims “everyone is an actor”, the point being that everyone is but a product of their environment, and said environment can sometimes make those people jaded to other experiences. The added gentrification of Brixton shows how even those who technically live in the same area, be it of London or otherwise, can have wholly different experiences from each other.
Further being explored is the idea of filmmaking ethics. Leah is pushed to find “edgier” footage by her mentor (Jaime Winston), who tells her that she can never be soft when crafting a film. This is what pushes her to frame her documentary as a story of growth for Benji, one which Benji does not appreciate. But it is also the lack of consent concerning filmmaking that lands Leah and Benji in the heart of a horrible ordeal, one which they decide to settle through a “fire with fire” mentality. At what point does trying to get the perfect shot or scene lead to invasion of privacy or serious mental and physical damage? The end result is a gripping third act that crescendos from the intrigue built in the former half of the film, and showcases powerfully how the rules of life, law, and opportunity differ for those born into the upper classes, even if they did not ask to be.
Championing this tightly crafted suspense and admirable collection of timely themes are simply terrific performances from the leading cast. Between this and Ben Sharrock’s “Limbo” (2020), which is another great film playing at Glasgow Film Festival, Ola Orebiyi is showing real promise for emotional range and restraint, able to sell a scene’s intensity with just his expressions and physicalities. He’s a real find. Lily Newmark meanwhile once again demonstrates a raw talent for adaptability, able to be sincere and charming in one moment, strategic and arguably manipulative in another, and utterly heartbroken in the next. Newmark is a great actor who I think isn’t getting anywhere near enough credit for her work, based not just on this film, but also on the series “Cursed” (2020), the humorous “How to Fake a War” (2019), and of course the aforementioned “Pin Cushion”. Here’s hoping she gets her dues soon.
“A Brixton Tale” is empathetic, smartly crafted, and breezily paced at 76 minutes. It’s an interesting story on love and circumstance that also serves as a layered critique on filmmaking ethics and classism. The dialogue can be a little wonky at times, but its thematic elements and terrific performances outweigh any gripes I may have with it. It’s not only a pleasant surprise that I wasn’t expecting, but it might possibly be a favourite of mine from this year’s Glasgow Film Festival.