Musicvideo helmer Daniel Wolfe and his brother Matthew confirm that style and content need not be mutually exclusive with their impressive feature debut, “Catch Me Daddy,” which tracks the doomed attempts of a British Asian teen runaway to escape the long arm of her violently protective family. Beautifully shot on 35mm by justly garlanded lenser Robbie Ryan, and performed with affecting naturalism by a cast that mixes trained thesps with non-professionals, the pic looks certain for further fest action following its Cannes Directors’ Fortnight berth, before niche theatrical outings. But the bleak storyline will likely discourage broader audiences from joining the pursuit.
Initially conceived as a Western set on the Yorkshire Moors, the story begins with Laila (screen debutante Sameena Jabeen Ahmed), a girl in her late teens, on the run with her Scottish boyfriend, Aaron (Conor McCarron, the young discovery of Peter Mullan’s 2010 teen-gang drama “NEDS”). Lying low in a trailer park on the fringes of a West Yorkshire town, Laila finds work in a local hair salon, while Aaron lacks any evident job skills.
In no hurry to lay out the whole story or the connections between its characters, “Catch Me Daddy” turns its attention to two groups of men: Caucasian duo Barry (Barry Nunney) and Tony (Gary Lewis), and the Asian quartet of Zaheer (Ali Ahmad), Junaid (Anwar Hussain), Bilal (Adnan Hussain) and Shoby (Shoby Kaman). Who is working for whom? It’s only gradually revealed that Zaheer is in fact Laila’s elder brother, and all six are ultimately in the employ of his restaurateur father, Tariq (Wasim Zakir). Pink-haired Laila has brought dishonor on her family, and there will be a reckoning.
Recalling the films of Andrea Arnold — all likewise shot by Ryan — “Catch Me Daddy” feels convincingly and affectingly rooted in its depiction of place and community. The film is never better than when it captures the magic of real people in real locations — Adam Rayner, as a giddily genial milkshake-bar mixer, surely cannot be acting — while the barren moor landscape, crisscrossed by the roads that might yet provide an escape route, contributes an eerie desolation.
Daniel Wolfe made his name shooting videos for the likes of platinum-selling U.K. artist Plan B and French band Shoes (whose musicvideo “Time to Dance,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal, reps yet another collaboration with lenser Ryan). Aptly, a scene in which Laila and Aaron shrug off their troubles as they dance with abandon to Patti Smith’s “Horses” is one of the film’s most striking sequences. Twenty-four-year-old Ahmed, a youth sports coach recruited through street casting, is a magnetic screen presence as Laila, if more assured in everyday situations than extreme emoting. The supporting cast notably includes Kate Dickie (“Red Road”) as Aaron’s mother and Nichola Burley (“StreetDance”) as Laila’s employer.
Although the film is never less than gripping, the story beats of the chase rely on a number of coincidental encounters, while the abundance of main characters and their unpredictable natures can make them seem a bit light on psychological investigation. Complicated action scenes — such as Laila’s escape after a nightclub brawl — are not the film’s strongest suit, but ample compensations render any such shortcomings as minor flaws.
A rumbling, sometimes discordant score — a collaboration between Matthew Wolfe (credited in this instance as Matthew Watson) and ambient-drone artist Daniel Thomas Freeman — provides a highly effective assist, augmented by thoughtfully chosen songs including one by Tim Buckley and three by Patti Smith. A narrated extract from the Ted Hughes poem “Heptonstall Old Church” (“The crystal in men’s heads / Blackened and fell to pieces”) offers a suitably evocative curtain-raiser to the action.