A star-making turn from bigscreen debutante Jessica Brown Findlay is the most notable aspect of British dramedy “Albatross,” which relates a troubled teen’s impact on the family of a middle-aged novelist with writer’s block. The lack of clear protagonist or genre, plus the absence of a major star, will make for a marketing challenge across all platforms, although there should certainly be an appreciative audience somewhere for this amiable debut from helmer Niall MacCormick (TV’s “Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley”). Pic should spread its wings for further festival perches following its first landing at Edinburgh.
Much of the action unfolds in the Cliff House, a small family-run hotel in an unnamed resort on Blighty’s south coast. The establishment shares its name with the hit novel written long ago by owner Jonathan Fischer (Sebastian Koch, “The Lives of Others”), who’s struggled ever since to come up with a worthy successor. Long-suffering wife Joa (Julia Ormond) has jettisoned her limited acting career to run the place, while their daughter, Beth (Felicity Jones), a conscientious high school senior, plans to study medicine at Oxford.
Into their lives comes new hotel maid Emilia (Brown Findlay), a mouthy 17-year-old with literary ambitions inspired by a family connection to Arthur Conan Doyle. Joa quickly develops concerns over the free-spirited newcomer’s influence on model student Beth, while Jonathan’s mentorship of Emilia’s writing isn’t entirely selflessly motivated.
Auds’ point of identification shifts uneasily among Beth, Jonathan and Emilia, creating a challenge in terms of rooting interest. The relationship between the two teen girls, which comes entertainingly to life when Emilia accompanies Beth to her Oxford interview, is the strongest element, with soft echoes of Pawel Pawlikowski’s “My Summer of Love” and Sandra Goldbacher’s “Me Without You.” Writer Tamzin Rafn’s background is in script development; based on the evidence here, she’s had enough of conventional story structure.
Among key tech contributions, lenser Jan Jonaeus (who previously collaborated with the helmer on his Thatcher biopic) prettily captures the seaside locations, which are in fact provided by the Isle of Man, off England’s rainy northwest coast. Strongest crew assist, however, comes from casting director Shaheen Baig, evidently uninhibited by pressure from financiers to deliver significant marketable elements. Brown Findlay, reportedly cast before she filmed “Downton Abbey,” is a real find. Germany’s Koch suggests astute fishing beyond the obvious casting pools, and Ormond clearly relishes her change-of-pace role as tough, casually profane Joa. Castings of Harry Treadaway (“Fish Tank”) as the local bad boy Emilia has tired of, and Thomas Brodie Sangster (“Nowhere Boy”) as a priggish Oxford applicant, are reflective of an ambitious creative reach beyond the merits of these sadly limited roles.