A teenage boy and his younger brother struggle to cope with the death of their mother in the evocative, low-budget Brit drama, "Dummy," a feature debut for shorts and TV helmer Matthew Thompson.

A teenage boy and his younger brother struggle to cope with the death of their mother in the evocative, low-budget Brit drama, “Dummy,” a feature debut for shorts and TV helmer Matthew Thompson. While the screenplay by Thompson and Paula Barnes feels a little overpolished in places and carries just the slightest whiff of sentimentality, the pic’s peculiar atmosphere, strong perfs and fine visuals more than compensate. Specialist outfits looking for offbeat fare would be smart to check out “Dummy” for modest theatrical returns and more solid tube sales.

When their sick mother (Therese Bradley) dies from an overdose of prescribed morphine (a possible but not definite suicide), 18-year-old Danny (young TV thesp Aaron Johnson) decides to honor her wishes by retaining custody of his younger brother Jack (impressive newcomer Thomas Grant), a tween who’s been deeply disturbed by the loss of his beloved mum.

Since the boys’ father has long gone MIA, the social worker assigned to their case (Moira Brooker) reluctantly concedes that Danny is legally entitled to be Jack’s guardian. She’s deeply skeptical that Danny — who loves partying, wants to be a DJ, and is preoccupied with his new romance with local waitress Zoe (Emma Catherwood) — can cope with the responsibility, but at least these middle-class boys have been left plenty of money and a big house in Brighton.

Sure enough, Danny turns out to be as poor a parent as most teenage boys would be, although geeky young Jack, a bird-watching fanatic who dresses in sleeveless sweaters that make him look like a WWII evacuee, can more or less look after himself. Nonetheless, the poor kid misses his mother so much that he drags a cloth dummy up from the basement so he can have pretend conversations in bed with his new surrogate mum.

Title refers to the mannequin, but also connotes a baby’s oral pacifier, implying there’s something creepily infantile about Jack’s behavior. Sense grows that Jack is likely to turn into one very weird guy when he reaches maturity.

Structure switches between the present and flashbacks covering the mother’s death — a device that seems a little needlessly tricksy, until it becomes clear that this allows for a powerful scene at the pic’s emotional climax. It’s a shame that the upbeat coda tries to sugar over the bitter pill of loss that’s the heart of movie. Still, pic’s use of telling details throughout — such as when Jack finds a dainty gold vibrator in his mother’s underwear drawer –counterbalances sentimentality elsewhere.

Rich HD lensing by David Langan nicely conveys the milky quality of the light on England’s south coast, while Phillip Barber’s production design works overtime to suggest the bohemian personality of the otherwise little-seen mother whose ghost haunts the movie. Other tech credits are sturdy.

Dummy

U.K.

Production

A Format Films production, in association with Highwire Films. (International sales: Format Films, Brighton.) Produced by Miranda Robinson, Matthew Thompson. Executive producers, Fiona Gillies, Nicola Fenn, Sean Gascoine. Co-producer, Paul Barnes. Directed by Matthew Thompson. Screenplay, Thompson, Paula Barnes.

Crew

Camera (color), David Langan; editor, Kant Pan; music, Nick Smith, Phil Hartnoll; production designer, Phillip Barber; costume designer, Julia Patkos; sound (Dolby Digital), Nick Smith. Reviewed at Edinburgh Film Festival (competing), June 23, 2008. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Aaron Johnson, Thomas Grant, Emma Catherwood, Jack Pierce, Therese Bradley,Moira Brooker.
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