Though it’s as small as a pinhead, there’s a freshness, wit and energy about “The Girl With Brains in Her Feet” that’s captivating. Tale of a young teenager in central England who’s in the fast lane both on the athletics field and in adolescence in general reps exciting debuts by helmer Roberto Bangura and scripter Jo Hodges, as well as a strong return from the feature outfield by veteran British producer Don Boyd. Minuscule pic will need all the good reviews and word of mouth it can generate to score even moderate theatrical returns, but already started generating considerable buzz at its Edinburgh fest world preem. TV sales should be a shoo-in.
It would be easy to categorize the movie as Ken Loach Lite, but, though there’s a wisp of pics like “Kes” in its feel for regional English life, the closest parallel is more Bill Forsyth’s upbeat “Gregory’s Girl,” in its benignly comic take on stumbling teenhood. Most notably, the picture also reaches back in spirit to such classic early-’60s Brit pics as “A Taste of Honey” and “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” films that both Bangura and Hodges admire and whose tone of optimistic but ruptured innocence they successfully echo here.
Significantly, the action is set not in the present but in 1972, just before British society started to lose the kind of ingenuousness amongst its youth that’s on display here. Jacqueline (remarkable newcomer Joanna Ward) is a talented athlete at a Leicester school who’s full of a boundless enthusiasm for life, despite being constantly browbeaten by her single mother, Vivienne (Amanda Mealing, excellent).
As the film opens, the 13-year-old is on the brink of womanhood — getting her first period, clandestinely puffing on cigarettes in the bathroom and engaging in forthright sex-talk with her nosy school pal Maxine (scene-stealing Jodie Smith).
Jacqueline’s big event is an athletics meet a month hence, and, in a fairly free-form style, pic follows the emotional and physical hurdles that face the young teen, who seems determined to pack her whole adolescence into a few weeks. For starters, there’s her virginity to be gotten rid of (potentially with some dorky kids behind a fish-and-chip shop, but actually with an older, Irish farmhand).
Running through everything is Jacqueline’s edgy relationship with her mother, who still refuses even to show her daughter a picture of her black father and who is having problems committing to her latest lover, Vic (Richard Bremmer).
More a collection of characters and incidents than a fully fledged narrative, pic bounces along on its energy — partly dictated by its slim $1.5 million budget and rapid 21-day shoot — its often very funny dialogue and excellent performances. Though Ward, 16, looks too old for the part, she’s perfect in all other respects as a girl who’s in a hurry to taste the sweet and sour of life — literally, always running — without stopping to consider the consequences.
Some of the most engaging scenes are those between Jacqueline and school pal Maxine, which, with humorous but highly explicit dialogue, exactly capture the presumption and one-upmanship of early teens. But Ward also comes through strongly — along with Mealing as her mom — in the quieter scenes of mother-daughter bonding.
Casting is tiptop down the line, from John Thomson’s tough but dedicated athletics coach and Mossie Smith’s seemingly liberal aunt to smaller roles like Joshua Henderson as Jacqueline’s smooth-talking deflowerer and Richard Claxton’s playground lothario.
Technically, the picture has an on-a-budget look but steers clear of social-realist grayness; blowup from Super-16 is fine. Adam Ross’ cutting is tight and mobile, and Rob Lane’s plentiful music — from a catchy title song to warm, small-scale orchestral scoring — keeps the cocktail of moods permanently in the shaker. Midlands accents are present but not pronounced, though the script is rife with Brit slang.
Film is the first out of the gate from Boyd & Co.’s Lexington Films, an indie set up to make no-star British low-budgeters. Though the pic centers on a mixed-race character, all those involved were determined not to make a race-issue movie that could be categorized as a “black film,” and reportedly turned down production coin that came with political agendas attached. No TV or state money was involved in the final funding.