Turner Prize-winning visual artist-turned-helmer Gillian Wearing and thesp coach Sam Rumbelow put seven people through a Method-acting crash course for “Self Made,” a compelling exercise that deliberately blurs the lines between docu and fiction. Artfully constructed and thought-provoking, but less pretentious than it might sound, pic probes how drama can serve as a vehicle for both therapy and exhibitionism. Result is moving and has a proper narrative arc, but with its no-name cast, it will have to rely on Wearing’s rep and strong critical backing to make something of itself beyond ultra-niche distribution, even in its domestic market.
After a creepy introductory street scene only explained later on, pic introduces the seven people from Northeastern Blighty — Asheq Akhtar, Lesley Robinson, Dave Austin, James Baron, Lian Stewart, Simon Manley and Jerome Prince — who answered an ad calling for volunteers to play themselves or fictional characters in a film. As docu-trained lenser Roger Chapman prowls around a bare rehearsal space filming events, the non-pro players are put through a series of exercises under the tutelage of acting coach Rumbelow.
It soon becomes clear that all of the volunteers, or at least the ones interviewed the most here, have problems they want to come to terms with through these dramatic exercises. Two, Akhtar and Robinson, admit to having been physically abused as children, while Stewart is working though deep-seated anger toward her neglectful father. After collaborating on a series of improvisations based on their past traumas, five of the participants get to star in mini-dramas crafted for the film and scripted by helmer Wearing and Leo Butler (with an assist from Shakespeare in the case of Stewart’s piece, a free adaptation of “King Lear’s” opening scene).
Along with the likes of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Sam Taylor-Wood, Wearing found fame in the 1990s as one of the Young British Artists (who are now mostly middle-aged), the U.K.’s most significant recent art movement. Over the years, many YBAs had a go at narrative filmmaking with varying degrees of success, and often with a significant disconnect between their gallery work and the feature films. What impresses most about Wearing’s debut is how congruent it is with her gallery work, particularly video installations like “Confess All on Video,” which featured people revealing dark secrets from behind masks. In “Self Made,” Wearing successfully extends her interest in private and public realms while still managing to craft a proper movie that packs a real emotional wallop.
There are still rough edges, and it’s not as if any of the aspiring thesps proves to be the next Brando or Streep, although it would be a genuine shame if standout Akhtar never had any further exposure, since he shows such obvious natural talent. As for the rest of the “cast,” their honest revelations are more interesting than the rehearsed material; it’s actually the process they go through with Rumbelow that fascinates, although some auds may cringe at the self-absorption on display, so easy to ridicule as “actorly” behavior.
Pic’s soundscape, a blend of music composed by Daniel Pemberton and source-recorded noise, reps a particularly impressive component in a uniformly well-crafted tech package. Editing by Daniel Goddard and Luke Dunkley turns sharply and effectively on a dime.