Packed with raw, prickly emotion and featuring a terrific debut performance by Frankie Box, writer-director Eva Riley’s first feature Perfect 10 is an acutely observed and beautifully shot coming-of-age story. It is also a tender, fastidiously constructed portrait of working-class girlhood that shimmers with angst, vulnerability, and compassion.
Leigh (Box) is a talented young gymnast struggling with poverty, bullying, and fractious family life. The story begins with her older half-brother Joe (fellow newcomer Alfie Deegan), a previously unknown product of her father’s adulterous past, arriving in her house unexpectedly. Though his existence represents a profound shock to her, Leigh feels so friendless that Joe’s fledgeling career of scooter theft is a welcome (even attractive) disruption of her unhappy, desolate routine. Her relationship with her moody new big brother draws her, inevitably, into a period of turbulent self-discovery.
It’s a lean, simple story, clocking in at under ninety minutes, but it is told with considerable sophistication. Focusing on the sometimes-volatile, sometimes-heartwarming relationships between a small cast of well-rendered characters, the layered and restrained script explores grief, self-doubt, and adolescent sexuality, all while placing great emphasis on the unsaid. Emotions simmer, delicate alliances shift on a pinhead; there’s a lot of laughter and fun to be had, despite the sadness in the film’s soul. Box, in particular, has rightly been singled out for praise in much of the film’s press so far, and one has no choice but to echo this. It really is extraordinary that a young first-timer like Box can carry an entire feature with so sensitive, fragile, yet assured a central performance. We have perhaps not seen such natural acting chops in a young British actor since Thomas Turgoose’s electrifying role in This Is England.
Visually, Perfect 10 is a great example of confident, expressive, yet unostentatious naturalism. A great deal of it is composed of sustained close-ups, which imbue the movie with intimacy at once compassionate and claustrophobic, yet overall, there is a sense of fluidity, physicality and motion which is appropriate to the gymnastic subject matter. Perhaps its greatest stylistic asset, though, is its well-judged sound design, which allows key moments to resonate with a dynamic yet light-touch emotional intensity.
It’s true enough that Perfect 10 treads some familiar ground. Right and wrong, family troubles, growing up. It would be easy for reviewers to compose dismissive comparisons: it’s I, Tonya or Billy Elliot, but for county gymnastics; it’s Eddie the Eagle or Cool Runnings but for petty thieves on a council estate. And in some ways, Perfect 10 does adhere to the generic template that you might expect to see underpinning a sporting underdog movie. But it does it so well, with such understated generosity, with so subtle and nuanced a script, with such nimble and skilful performances at its heart, that it marks out its own niche away from the usual banal sentimentality of inspirational sports stories. It’s not the most original piece of work, perhaps, but it is great stuff.