★★★☆☆

British actor Aki Omoshaybi directs his first feature Real, a tale of beleaguered young love. Crafting an intimate, impressionistic story Omoshaybi is also impressive in the lead as lovelorn Kyle, while Pippa Bennett Warner is affecting as the object of his affections, single mother and recovering alcoholic Jamie.

Kyle first meets Jamie at the till of a corner shop where her card is declined. He offers to pay for her shopping, and chancing his arm, catches up with her outside and asks her to lunch. “I don’t do lunch”, she replies, ostensibly a frosty rebuke to his amorous intentions as the trouser-suited Jamie makes her excuses to get back to her central London job.

From the first, Jamie is guarded and wary, displaying an outward confidence, while Kyle is open, optimistic and, in his crisp white shirt open at the neck, not a little cocky. In another context, his attempts to get her to see him might read as overly pushy. But as we quickly learn, each is hiding a vulnerability, both through their demeanour and their dress.

Neither has the job that the other thinks: Jamie was on her way to an (unsuccessful) interview while paying the bills with a supermarket job, and Kyle’s sharp suit is one of the few belongings he carts through the city on the way back to his mother’s house. Both together and apart, the camera keeps close to its dual subjects. Handheld and in shallow focus, this is urban life depicted at human level. Half-finished paint jobs in Kyle’s childhood bedroom speak to decades of his family just getting by, while the squeak of the swings in the suburban parks Jamie takes her son to are subtly evocative.

There’s an early Shane Meadows-feel to proceedings, without perhaps the inevitable descent into explicit violence and excessive melodrama, which here tends to sit at the margins, gnawing at Kyle and Jamie’s brave faces. Jamie is a recovering alcoholic, desperate to avoid losing her son to the care system, while Kyle has a criminal record, possibly stemming from a moment of childhood trauma, both of which haunt him both in his search for romance with Jamie and to salvage his tattered relationship with his mother (Karen Bryson).

Real smartly avoids most of the clichés of urban deprivation narratives: Kyle’s criminal past factors in not with a predictable showdown between him and his dodgy associates, but as one of many layers of his character, texturing the narrative rather than driving it. This does, however, occasionally lead to confusion over how close he still is with his old friends, not to mention the nature of his former conviction.

The film’s frequent narrative ellipses eventually come a cropper at its end, when a coda that neatly wraps up loose ends comes out of nowhere and robs the final moments of either emotional catharsis or authenticity. At just under 80 minutes, Real’s climactic shortcut feels especially strange. At its best, Omoshaybi’s direction captures the messiness of life, the unspoken anxieties and understandings of new relationships, and the precious scarcity of closure in love and family. One more untied narrative knot might just have been more satisfying than such a hasty resolution.

Christopher Machell @MachellFilm