The debut feature from Joe Stephenson, Chicken (2015) – premièring at the Edinburgh International Film Festival – is based on the stage play of the same name with an adapted screenplay co-written by original author Freddie Machin and Weekend (2011) actor Chris New. After a shaky start, this British drama set against the sweeping East Anglian backdrop picks up considerably before reaching a conclusion that packs quite the emotional punch. Richard (Scott Chambers) lives in a beaten-up caravan on someone else’s land with his older brother, Polly (Morgan Watkins). He spends his days farming and caring for his pet chicken – and lifelong best friend – Fiona.
Income for the two has all but dried up and Polly is finding it increasingly difficult to care for Richard, who has learning difficulties. However, when Richard meets Annabelle (Yasmin Paige), the daughter of the new land owners, things look up until Polly announces he’s leaving. Increasing in potency as the slow-burn narrative unravels, Chicken in an assured and delicately compelling debut. It’s difficult at first to care for these characters. But as their past is revealed bit-by-bit and their individual predicaments become clearer, a bond is formed that the director uses to his advantage as the film builds towards a quietly devastating denouement. Richard, though troubled, maintains a sunny outlook on life.
Chambers, who played the same part in the original play, brings an honesty and innocence to the role that’s enough at first as we see Richard inventing ways to entertain himself and harbouring eccentric but personal collections. Yet his performances morphs with the many ripples of the narrative. His chemistry with Watkins and Paige results in a fine mixture of entertaining and uncomfortable scenes. Like the characters and narrative, Stephenson’s direction refines itself steadily. His impulses are admirable and he has a clear eye for utilising the camera to reflect characters’ emotions and respect actors’ space for the quieter moments. The script is a little wobbly at times, the dialogue occasionally weak and certain plot mechanisms questionable. That said, Chicken is an admirable first offering that gradually sucks you in the more patience you invest. It betters itself as it progresses and showcases a trio of notable performances. Stephenson is undoubtedly one to watch. Just like his confidence levels throughout this debut, his career will only go from strength to strength.
The Edinburgh International Film Festival programme, ticketing details and more can be viewed at edfilmfest.org.uk.