Sundance 2023

Girl review – Glasgow-set mother-daughter story is classy and ambitious

This sombre and surprisingly stylish debut from British filmmaker Adura Onashile skilfully explores notions of family and seperation

One of the hardest parts of growing up is the realisation that our parents have problems of their own. Not focused completely on our issues alone, they must care for us and care for themselves. In Girl, eleven-year-old Ama (Le’Shantey Bonsu) comes to a second, more unfortunate discovery: her mother Grace (Déborah Lukumuena) seems to have more problems than she does. Still shaken by the circumstances which brought her to Glasgow from the country of her birth as a 14-year-old mum, Grace hasn’t yet learned the stoic, perpetually unfazed face almost all parents learn to wear once their child appears.

Grace and Ama enjoy their own little world in a small flat high up in a tower block. Behind the front door is a landing, with the apartment sitting below it. It’s a wonderful symbol for the pair’s cave-like existence. To Grace’s disappointment far more than Ama’s, it can’t last forever. Social services come knocking and, not wanting trouble, Ama is back at school. Grace tells her daughter: “It’s the only way they’ll leave us alone.” Ama likes it – and one classmate in particular. That friendship-cum-something more soothes her transition from girl to grown-up. Indeed, Grace becomes the titular girl, forced to confront adolescent trauma she used motherhood to distract herself from.

One of the film’s most powerful moments involves Ama and her friend spotting Grace while working at the local shopping centre. Any fantasy of seeing a parent plugging away skilfully at their job is shattered. Grace is, instead, in the midst of a quiet, difficult moment. Ama is speechless, her friend a little embarrassed.

This is a classy film that shows signs of great talent from all involved. Lukumuena is a César winner who most recently acted alongside Gerard Depardieu. The production design is stellar, Onashile proving to be a remarkably stylish director in her first outing (she can also pick music very well). Cinematographer Tasha Black, an experienced camera operator shooting her first feature film, gives Girl a glossy sheen that contrasts its kitchen sink storyline. I suspect a good chunk of the film’s budget was spent on costumes: they’re fashionable and spotless. Onashile wants to show Ama and Grace as down on their luck, but not constantly, and certainly not defined by it. She succeeds.

Family stories like this are usually about coming together. That’s true of Scrapper, another British debut at Sundance, from director Charlotte Regan. Girl is less heartwarming but more ambitious. It’s a film largely about separation, and the knotty way we strive to put ourselves first while staying true to our families. Is it possible? Girl doesn’t seem to think so. Or maybe Grace just isn’t ready to be a mum, while Ama is ready to take life by the reins. Its narratively uncertain ending disguises the emotional clarity of its central characters. What’s plain to see, though, is that Girl is quite the film.

Girl was screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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