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Scrapper review – impressively tender portrait of a girl’s precarious life

There’s a tender sweetness in this likable, beautifully photographed if sometimes unsubtle and improbable debut feature from British film-maker Charlotte Regan, all about a fragile father-daughter relationship.

A 12-year-old girl called Georgie on an east London estate (played by newcomer Lola Campbell) has been orphaned by the death of her single mum, and is currently living secretly and illegally on her own in their council house. She is getting into fights, making money by nicking bikes and selling them to a local who keeps the spoils in a lockup; all the while she is pretending to her school and social services that an uncle named “Winston Churchill” is there with her. She has a best mate called Ali (Alin Uzun), whose mum has also been hoodwinked by Georgie’s “uncle” pretence.

Georgie’s precarious life, clearly in any case teetering on the brink of some kind of disaster, is upended by the arrival of Jason (a coolly assured and sympathetic performance from Harris Dickinson) whose dyed blond hair makes him look like a poundshop Eminem. He is Georgie’s errant dad, who has until now been living in Ibiza selling tickets for clubs, and so the circumstances of his original meeting with Georgie’s mum are cleverly and poignantly made clear.

Jason demands entry to Georgie’s house and life, and threatens to inform on her to the council if she refuses. He seems sincere enough about wanting to connect with her and so their tricky relationship begins. But then Georgie finds something disturbing in his wallet and Jason, for his part, finds something disquieting in the bedroom once occupied by Georgie’s late mother; the secret of Georgie’s poignant yearning to ascend to wherever her mum is now.

Scrapper is that kind of British social realism which in fact sometimes looks weirdly unreal – but intentionally so in this case, due to the sidebars of broad comedy and fantasy Regan welds on the action. Georgie and Ali often have aimless improv-type conversations which may owe a little to the child acting of TV’s Outnumbered. There is a scene in which Georgie walks down the street and Jason goofily accompanies her on the other side, which could be a playful homage to Harry Dean Stanton’s wacky walk opposite his nephew in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas.

This is a film that is set in the Brit tradition of Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar and Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun, in which the grit is offset by visual summery dreaminess. As Georgie and Jason become close, particularly on a train ride to the country in the latter half of the movie, there are some lovely images from Regan’s cinematographer Molly Manning Walker (herself the director of the recent How to Have Sex).

It has to be said that Scrapper is not quite as humanly complex as it might have been. Occasionally the improbabilities will jar, and the educational and welfare authorities are cartoonishly callous and gullible. It is surely impossible to get away with the pretence Georgie’s been getting away with for all that long: Sarah Gavron’s film Rocks incidentally had a much more realistic take on this. But the gentleness of the connection between Jason and Georgie gives Scrapper its warmth. Just hanging out together on camera is much more difficult than it looks, and Dickinson and Campbell manage it well. Regan looks like a very impressive and capable movie talent.

Scrapper screens at the Edinburgh international film festival on 19 August and is released on 25 August in UK and Irish cinemas.