An ironic pink heart dots the “I” in the troubled-teen tale “The Violators” — perhaps the sole playful touch in this stern, striking debut from British novelist-turned-helmer Helen Walsh. Treading ground initially derivative of works by Andrea Arnold and Pawel Pawlikowski before going on its own genre-tinged tangent, this study of adolescent desire and alienation across class lines takes its time nurturing a tensely ambiguous relationship between its two young female leads — alertly played by newcomers Lauren McQueen and Brogan Ellis — only to squander a measure of that intrigue on a blunt third-act twist. Early berths in Edinburgh and Karlovy Vary portend a healthy festival run for this auspicious arrival, though distributors may hold back.
The picturesque English county of Cheshire is not typically associated with hard urban realism, so it’s fitting that Walsh has chosen it as the locale for a story in which the working classes seem pointedly disregarded even by their nearest neighbors. Set largely on a council housing estate in Birkenhead’s left-to-crumble Ship Canal region, the pic swiftly sketches the bones of a community marked by absent parents and scant opportunities: When 16-year-old dropout Shelly (McQueen) is introduced tracking her brothers — adult deadbeat Andy (Derek Barr) and bright preteen Jerome (Callum King Chadwick) — to a boozy weeknight party, she seems less a sister to them than the woman of the house.
As it turns out, she more or less is, with the siblings’ mother not in evidence; their father, with whom they evidently have a traumatic history, is in prison. Shelly does a commendable job of holding the household together, though she’s sourly susceptible to conditional offers of support — including the expensive gifts she warily accepts from middle-aged pawn shop worker and would-be sugar daddy Mikey (Stephen Lord). He’s not the only one taking a questionable interest in her well-being, however, as posh, stylish teen Rachel (Ellis) begins semi-stalking Shelly, offering her clothes and unsolicited relationship warnings.
As a tentative friendship builds between the two, Rachel’s motives remain opaque, even as Walsh elegantly toggles the pic’s point of view between them. Whether the more well-heeled girl is acting out of genuine loneliness, passive-aggressive spite or unarticulated sexual curiosity is enticingly open to question, though a critical revelation in the film’s rushed, somewhat ungainly final reel reframes their acquaintance in a manner more dramatically startling than it is psychologically satisfying. On the surface, Shelly’s nervous relationship with Mikey is easier to parse, but it comes with its own moral fractures and complexities: The depth of affection on either end isn’t immediately clear. While comparisons to Pawlikowski’s “My Summer of Love” are tempting, every romantic angle in Walsh’s less seductive film is a potential bluff.
Even at their most inscrutable, however, the characters are given itchy, detailed life by a fine cast. Making her bigscreen debut after a handful of TV assignments, 18-year-old McQueen is a particularly strong discovery, navigating Shelly’s conflicting balance of guile and naivete with canny precision. It’s a performance that teases out both the frightened girl and the prematurely hardened woman obscured by her mouthy, Cher Lloyd-styled image. Ellis, meanwhile, is a suitably cool counterpart, intelligently playing Rachel’s gauzy reserve without resorting to tired class stereotype. (No mean feat, considering the not-always-subtle script even gives her a taste for competitive fencing.) Best known locally for a two-year stint on daily soap “EastEnders,” Lord finds welcome pockets of sympathy and self-doubt in Mikey’s sleazy demeanor.
Unlike many new filmmakers from a writing background, Walsh (whose 2014 novel “The Lemon Grove” examined comparable themes of cross-generational longing) has conceived her story in keenly image-based terms. Richly shot in unexpected ice-cream tones — a fresh break from the cement palette that dominates this corner of British film — by first-time d.p. Tobin Jones, the pic lingers on the fallen gambling arcades and muggy factory silhouettes of the region. Such ragged environmental texture plays heavily into our restless-but-routeless heroine’s state of mind.