Social Realism, it seems, is about the only genre of film to come out of the UK film industry nowadays. This Is England, Red Road, Fish Tank, Brick Lane, Nowhere Boy, Shifty – all small budget, coming of age features rooted in the council estates and domestic problems of Britain’s working class. It’s like the New Wave never went away.
The Scouting Book For Boys is very much cut from the same cloth, except transporting the drama from inner city tower blocks to a caravan site in Norfolk.
Starring Thomas Turgoose (This Is England, Eden Lake) as David and Holliday Grainger, an actress best known for TV work, including BBC’s Merlin and Robin Hood, as Emily. They’re two trailer park scallies who while away the hours mucking about and playing pranks. It’s all rather carefree, drenched in nostalgic sentiment towards the halcyon days of youth and the hazy daze of school holidays.
We meet the thick-as-thieves pair engaging in some unexplained private game, which, bizarrely, involves perving on an old woman getting undressed. The implication is this is some sort of ritual, or starter’s orders, for their daily race across the caravan roofs. The duo set off, with the alpha Emily racing ahead of the beta David, who is afraid to jump the bigger gaps.
As an opening salvo of intent this is masterful. Not only is the dynamic between the two leads defined in an instant, but the film’s visual verve and mischievous humour is also established. Framed against a sunset of deep pastel hues, like a celestial pack of Refreshers, the two’s dance-like chase reminded me of that scene from Titanic.
This was just one of those abstract associations you get from time to time, I thought. But no, as Emily twirled in celebration, shouting: “I’m the king of the world!”, I realised I was in for something special. The product of genius scripting or an inspired piece of improvisation, only a director’s commentary will tell.
Contrast that with David then falling flat on his face after missing a jump in his haste to keep up, the smutty joke Emily ribs him with and the puppy dog look of restrained confusion he shoots her back. Well, let’s just say the clues are all there.
The inseparable pair’s idyll is soon shattered. Emily’s alcoholic Amy Winehouse-alike mother, Sharon (Susan Lynch) has lost custody of her, and she is being sent to live with her father. The pair argue, with Emily storming off. The next morning, an hysterical Susan shakes David awake. Emily has run away.
David is, of course, in on the ruse, and is bringing Emily food (well, crisps and chocolate bars) to her hiding place, a secluded cave a few miles down the coast. For a while, the slow-witted David is amused by what he sees as a protracted game, helping Emily turn the cave into a secret hideaway. But when the police are called in and a manhunt starts, the naivety of both David’s worldview and decision-making become apparent.
The beating heart of Scouting Book is the relationship between the leads. Turgoose has proved himself to be an adept actor in the past, but only playing the sort of cheeky chavy lad you imagine to be an exaggerated facsimile of his own personality. His slack jawed portrayal of the dopey David, with the gangly gait and emotional bemusement of a teenager in the first flushes of puberty, will improve his reputation no end.
Emily allows Holliday Grainger the freedom of the stage, as the girl who’s either grown up way too fast or not fast enough. A character that could have just been Vicky Pollard with pathos manages to develop real dichotomies. She seems aware of her own blossoming sexuality but is also cringingly ignorant of its consequences, both untameable and trapped by her own blinkered ambition.
One scene in particular sums this up. While trying to catch a sheep with David she boldly exclaims, “You can think like the sheepdog. I’m going to think like a sheep.” Unaware of the deeper philosophical undertones her statement carries, it is a sadly poignant sentiment from such a free spirited girl.
Credit for crafting such nuanced portraits of working class teenagers should be given to writer Jack Thorne. Scouting Book is his debut feature, but it is unsurprising that he has TV experience writing for both Skins and Shameless. These would have been easy characters to patronise – the caravan park itself also presents a blatant target – hanging out in amusement arcades, boozing in the local karaoke bar and the like, but Thorne refuses to rely on stereotype.
Yes, there are some grotesques on display. But then the sorts of people who choose to live in a caravan holiday park year-round are bound to be slightly dysfunctional.
Director Tom Harper, for whom this is also a debut, does a fine job, more than fulfilling the potential he displayed on his short film work. For my money, though, it is DOP Robbie Ryan who deserves most plaudits. The texture he imbues into the colour palette defies the usual kitchen sink grain of UK social drama, embracing instead an almost magic realist look of blurry soft focuses and extreme close-ups, both tender and intense.
The sound track, courtesy of alt-rockers Noah and the Whale, also add to the atmosphere pertinently.
This is an immensely powerful film, but if I had one criticism it would be in the final act. David’s character arc seems to speed up too fast. A few more brief scenes could have let this change breathe. The filmmakers have bravely gone for an ending of high originality – and one I commend them highly for – but the need to conform to a rigid ninety-minute running time means a few beats were probably cut.
For example, the eponymous Scouting Book shows up briefly and is of little consequence, which means the title is of little relevance to the film. No doubt this was explained in the script. It is rare I’ll ever say a film needs to be longer, but such is the quality of Scouting Book that ten extra minutes could have elevated this to mini-masterpiece status.
A highly impressive British film, and one that deserves to find a wider audience, Scouting Book For Boys is an unexpected delight.