Girl: Sundance 2023 Film Review

Year: 2023

Runtime: 87 minutes

Director/Writer: Adura Onashile

Actors: Déborah Lukumuena, Le’Shantey Bonsu, Liana Turner, Danny Sapani, Ayesha Antoine

by Sarah Manvel

There must be something in the Scottish water which makes it easy for Scottish filmmakers to create astonishing mood pieces about isolation set in the middle of a city. Think of “Trainspotting”(1996), in which the rowdy gang of junkies are, despite the busyness of their lives, entirely alone with their addictions. Think of “Morvern Callar”(2002), in which Samantha Morton chooses to tell no one that her boyfriend has committed suicide on her kitchen floor. Think of “Under the Skin”(2013), in which Scarlett Johansson paces city streets by herself desperately seeking a human connection she’ll never be able to achieve. And think of “Red Road”(2006), in which a woman on her own hunts a man who lives in a towerblock via the city’s CCTV cameras. All of those movies pulse with life, with people everywhere, and yet the core characters are fundamentally alone. With “Girl” writer-director Adura Onashile in her film debut puts herself on the same level as Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold and Jonathan Glazer in also creating an empathetic, charming movie about isolation that’s both universal and incredibly specific. It is a glorious achievement.

The generic title, which should probably be changed for marketing purposes, makes its own point. Is the girl to which it is referring Grace (Déborah Lukumuena) or her elementary-school-aged daughter Amma (Le’Shantey Bonsu)? After all, Grace was only fourteen when she had her daughter. They live in Glasgow, and though it’s made explicit they are from somewhere else, all other details about why they are on their own are implied. Grace works as a night cleaner for a shopping centre and leaves Amma at home alone when she does, with a repeated mantra that she cannot trust anyone. They live in a crumbling towerblock (what Americans know as a project) from which all the tenants are due to be re-housed, and no one in the neighbourhood is happy. This is good because it means no one really pays them attention, until the night Amma notices a fire break out in the towerblock across the way. She screams down the alarm, and thanks to her actions everyone is saved in time. For Amma, the resulting attention is good; it means Grace is compelled to send her back to school, where she develops a friendship with the girl from the flat on fire, Fiona (Liana Turner). But for Grace, the attention is bad. She is so frightened of everything that all she wants is for herself and Amma to be left alone. Of course, with a child in school whose irregular attendance troubles the authorities, that’s impossible.

Grace’s fear is most obviously expressed when the towerblock is condemned and its inhabitants rehoused around the city. Grace and Amma are assigned a single room on the ground floor of a bed & breakfast (along the lines of a halfway house, but in the UK a vaguely supervised dumping ground for people the state has a responsibility to house). As the kindly manager Samuel (Danny Sapani) hands her the keys, Grace stands frozen, looking down submissively, with her hands clutched together in the posture of a terrified small child. She says nothing, but she doesn’t need to. It’s so disproportionate an expression of fear that it’s obvious something is very wrong. Later, when a social worker, Lisa (Ayesha Antoine), arrives at the hostel, the other residents – who don’t know Grace, but do know trouble when they see it, and because this is Scotland, already know whose side they’re on – block her access with their bodies. It’s a delightful act of solidarity, but unnecessary – Lisa’s concern for Grace and Amma is genuine, but since neither of them will talk, the risk is that things will get worse instead of better. 

Ms Lukumuena, a French actress here working entirely in English, is just spectacular. Grace loves her daughter truly and is patently doing her best, but despite her enormous efforts her terrors are on the cusp of overwhelming them both. Amma is so young she still – mostly – accepts her mother’s view of the world. Her friendship with Fiona is a gift for them both, and there’s a lovely scene where they sneak into a furnished show home, explore the fancy surroundings, and play house. Cinematographer Tasha Back allows the Glasgow outside Grace’s flat to blur into the background, centering the childish decorations, drawing, curtains and toys which enable Amma and Grace to erase the rest of the world together. Ré Olunuga’s music adds to the mysterious, private feeling that Grace is seeking for herself, and Stuart Truesdale’s colorful costumes ensure that everyone’s individuality is centered in the overcast skies – just look at Fiona’s pink puffer coat, or the spangly silver dress that Grace can’t help admiring while she’s at work. 

Ms Onashile is an experienced playwright who knows Glasgow inside out, and manages to build both an accurate feeling for the city as well as an understanding of Grace’s struggling mind. Not everyone is nice, Grace doesn’t always behave perfectly, and kids can be brats, but the building question is whether Grace will allow herself to trust somebody and get the help the community is waiting to offer. Grace is so desperate, and Amma so sparky, that the hope things work out for them is held in the mouth. Someone please give Ms Onashile a budget on a level with Danny Boyle’s for her next film.   


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