Deadbeat dads love to blow back into people’s lives in indie movies. The precocious kids they abandoned have a similar passion for shedding their prickly-yet-charming crust to reveal the soft, yearning children beneath. Scrapper, music video director Charlotte Regan’s feature debut, cobbles together another story in this mold, this time set in a broke neighborhood on the fringe of London with Jason (Harris Dickinson) as the bleach-blond dirtbag dad and Georgie (Lola Campbell) as the bike-stealing 12-year-old he left behind. Regan’s film plays in a familiar sandbox—its well-worn arc robs the story of any moving specificity, while the stylistic comedy flourishes feel just as rote—and her functional if uninspiring sandcastle creation proves that she can put something together, even if it’s too conventional to last long in our memories.
Some of its touchstones are worth mentioning, simply because they provide more engaging alternatives. It’s very much like Boy, Taika Waititi’s silly-sad Sundance hit about a poor Maori kid whose good-for-nothing father rolls up out of nowhere, with its dabbles into imaginative magical realism, look at enterprising impoverished kids, and absurd, cutaway-filled visual language. Slap on a coat of Mike Leigh, and you’re smack-dab in Georgie’s rundown British world, where she copes with the recent death of her single mom.
The stage is set through the pseudo-doc confessionals permeating sitcoms: Her grizzled teacher doesn’t care, her social workers are inept and overworked. She and her pal Ali (Alin Uzun) deliver bikes to a fence; a local convenience store clerk provides voice recordings to dupe uncaring and literally distant authority figures. This eccentric exposition—augmented by more charmingly strange gimmicks, like her household spiders speaking to each other in JRPG-like dialogue boxes—puts the brunt of Regan’s personality up front. Even if it doesn’t all click, it’s better than the bog-standard dramedy on the way.
But then Jason hops the fence and Ali disappears without much ceremony, leaving the estranged duo alone. Though there’s some superficial tension, there’s so much twee jokiness in the script that it papers over the more character-centric incidents. At just 84 minutes, their relationship barely has any time to develop anyways. Instead, we get the sense that both kid and dad are already fundamentally good and ready for each other, and the filler between marketable logline A and heartwarming premise B is just vamping.
But one star can make all the difference. Where Campbell and Uzun’s performances and characters are caught between the unpretentious cuteness of childhood and the self-aware jokey absurdity of preteendom, Dickinson, as always, rises to the occasion. With a wiry, sleazy groundedness, his lonely loser exudes desperation. Sad, aimless eyes add more depth to his straightforward, immature sweetness than is on the page, especially when juxtaposed with the film’s most impactful symbol: Georgie’s mom, living on only in the digitized memories of phone videos and voicemails.
In this tragic, technological preservation, Scrapper brushes against some of its more interesting and half-baked fantasy. Some of the scrap in question refers to Georgie’s well-protected room, where a totem-like tower of trash ascends to the ceiling. But its grasping construction is similar to the handheld freneticism Regan deploys every once in a while, or the undeniably winning deadpan with which a Tooth Fairy scene is played: Their disparate junkyard parts are stronger than the stacked and fused assemblage they create.
But Regan does display a keen eye for parts. Her locations are perhaps the strongest of these elements. Overgrown, abandoned buildings offer alluring blends of broken glass and flooding light, while cramped laundromats’ only surprises are contained within the machines. There’s plenty of affection for the rundown community, which her characters frequently run through, but, as much of the movie goes to show, you need more than affection to make a narrative affecting.
Scrapper isn’t funny or sweet enough to overcome some of its more cutesy leanings, and it’s not inventive enough to stand out from its peers covering the same kind of burgeoning parent-child relationship. But it hangs together, as brief and unsatisfying as its narrative may be, which proves Regan capable of pulling off a feature, even if we’ll need to wait for a second film to fully see her more off-the-wall ideas flourish.
Director: Charlotte Regan
Writer: Charlotte Regan
Starring: Harris Dickinson, Lola Campbell, Alin Uzun, Ambreen Razia, Olivia Brady, Aylin Tezel
Release Date: January 22, 2023 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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