Made on a shoestring budget and self-distributed by debut feature writer and director Bryan O’Neil after he became disillusioned by various distribution studios, Booked Out (2012) is almost the textbook definition of independent British filmmaking. However, instead of focusing upon violence, rape or kitchen sink realism, this slice of indie cinema brings something refreshing to the table – a desire to explore the lives of unique characters who have been marginalised by society.
Ailidh (Mirren Burke), a bookish, polaroid enthusiast who spends most of her time in her own little world, lives in a quaint London apartment block. The only two people in her life are Jacob (Rollo Weeks), the mysterious boy who pays daily visits to the flat opposite hers (occupied by the reticent Jacqueline, played by Claire Garvey), and Mrs. Nicholls (Sylvia Syms), an elderly woman from upstairs who believes her dead husband to be alive and well. Having developed a crush for Jacob – partly due to the fact she’s been spying on him for months – Ailidh takes it upon herself to find out more, leading to some unexpected consequences.
Rooted in a world full of dreams, fancy dress parties and imaginary animals, Booked Out revels in the non-conformist atmosphere that encloses it. While this may prove to be a little off-putting for some people, O’Neil’s screenplay offers up some fresh insights into four different, yet remarkably similar characters, each searching for the same things – acceptance and love. Though pleasantly chirpy, heartfelt and witty, it’s never afraid to show that the real world forever threatens to destroy those moments of happiness.
The main problem with Booked Out is that it’s far too light. Though these characters are full of quirks and hide intriguing sides to their personalities, there’s not enough social context for the audience to truly invest in their lives. Whether it’s Mrs. Nicholls’ struggle to accept the death of her husband, or Jacob’s guilt for leaving Jacqueline to spend time with Ailidh, we simply don’t have the means of knowledge to determine whether or not these characters are genuine or not, and just why they’re living and acting the way they do.
That’s not to write off O’Neil or the cast’s efforts. O’Neil proves himself as a director to watch, not only through his undeterred determination to see the final product in cinemas, but also through the warmth he projects into his characters and the way in which they’re presented. Mirren may show the confidence of her co-stars (both Weeks and Syms shine as Jacob and Mrs. Nicholls), but she inhabits Ailidh with a sense of ease that allows you to simply go with her mindset without reading too much into her reasoning.
Booked Out may be thin on dramatic aspects, but it’s a charming, harmless debut that contains some solid performances – unfortunately likely to be overlooked. O’Neil cements himself as a filmmaker to watch, predominantly in the way he avoids cliches in creating a fairly simplistic yet engaging film about unconventional characters living on the outside of society – it’s no easy feat, and for that alone, Booked Out deserves credit.