Kitchen-Sink Drama, With the Color Turned Up

Charlotte Regan’s debut feature “Scrapper” is part of a lineage of British social-realist films, but its pastel palette and surreal humor resist the genre’s dreariness.

By Simran Hans

Reporting from London

When Charlotte Regan was a child, she spent summer vacations playing on the street. “It felt like you were at a holiday park with all your best friends,” said the British filmmaker, 29, in a recent interview. At the time, Regan lived in a North London housing project with her grandmother, whose balcony overlooked the makeshift playground. “It felt like magic,” she said.

Regan revisits those childhood memories in her spirited debut film “Scrapper,” which opens in theaters on Aug. 25 in Britain, Ireland and the United States. The movie’s 12-year-old protagonist, Georgie (Lola Campbell, in her screen debut,) lives alone after her mother’s death, and spends a summer vacation avoiding social services and finding creative — if illegal ways — to make money. Georgie still thinks of the project where she lives as “the best place in the world,” Regan said, until her previously absent father Jason (Harris Dickinson, “Triangle of Sadness”) turns up, disrupting her summer of dance routines and freedom.

“Scrapper,” which won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is part of a rich lineage of British social-realist films that center children and often cast nonprofessional actors. From Ken Loach (“Kes”) to Clio Barnard (“The Selfish Giant”) many of Britain’s most celebrated auteurs have explored the bleak injustices of the country’s class system from a child’s-eye view. But with its kinetic camerawork, pastel color palette and surreal sense of humor (there are talking spiders), “Scrapper” is a rejection of the genre’s so-called kitchen-sink gloom.

In her audition tape for the role of Georgie, Campbell performed a monologue about her obsession with Home Bargains, a British discount store. Regan said she remembered being struck by Campbell’s unusual mix of maturity and silliness: The then-11-year-old was as interested in drinking slush puppies as admiring sofa cushions. “She’s such an adult, but so childish, which is always what Georgie was meant to be,” she added.

Campbell’s agile wit and natural swagger shines through in her performance, and much of the film’s comic dialogue was improvised in rehearsals. (Regan joked that Campbell should get her own writing credit.) In one of these workshopped scenes, Georgie and Jason watch a posh couple arguing across a train platform and imagine what they could be saying to one another.

In a video interview, Campbell praised Regan’s laid back approach on set. “She wasn’t strict,” she said, adding that the director “fits in” with the younger cast members. “She just messes about with all of us. She’s up-to-date with children’s jokes,” she said.

But Regan said that before making the film, she had fallen out of touch with what it felt like to be a kid. While she was writing “Scrapper,” the filmmaker’s father passed away. “I was probably much more grown up before he died,” she said. After losing him and her grandmother in quick succession, she read a lot of books about coping with grief. She found that reading about “how kids deal with things” resonated more than advice aimed at adults, she said.

In “Scrapper,” the traditional coming-of-age narrative is subverted: It is a parent, Jason, who must grow up, while the self-sufficient Georgie learns to let herself be a kid. Regan said that several of her short films also explore “male figures struggling with their maturity,” a theme that “probably comes from people I’ve been surrounded by.”

Though the film is not autobiographical, Regan said, she channeled her late father’s playful misbehavior in writing the character of Jason. “Every weekend was an adventure,” she said, grinning. “He’d get me BB guns, and we’d shoot soft pellets at people walking by his flat in the middle of the day and then hide.”

Both Regan and the film’s cinematographer, Molly Manning Walker, have a background in directing music videos, and Regan said the pair wanted to ensure the film’s look had “a bit more joy” than the “gritty working class films” that international audiences have come to expect from Britain.

Danny Leigh, a film writer who curated a season called “Working Class Heroes” at the British Film Institute, said “some of the most famous films about British working-class life were made by middle-class filmmakers who saw their characters as victims.” But for creative people from working-class backgrounds, he added, “resilience and resistance often take the form of laughter.”

Regan said she loved “the working class cinema we have in the U.K.,” but was “so sick of it being so desaturated and grim.” That didn’t reflect her experience, she said: “Out of darkness,” she added, “comes that resilient humor that I find funnier than anything else.”

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