Competent if pedestrian “Urban Hymn” takes a familiar walk down the path of inspirational youth drama. There are no surprises on hand in this fictive tale with Shirley Henderson as a middle-class Londoner who tries to mentor a teenage girl with a rough background and likely rougher future. Handled with assurance if no great inspiration by veteran helmer Michael Caton-Jones (“Rob Roy”), pic looks headed toward modest home-turf b.o. and select niche home-format sales offshore.
Henderson’s Kate is a comfortably situated professional who at midlife decides to make a major, seemingly backwards career move: Leaving behind years as a sociology lecturer for the much more down-and-dirty job of dealing directly with (she’s warned) “some of the most disturbed” at-risk youth. Hired to juvenile residence facility Alpha House, where she’s primarily used as an educator to wards of the state (and among them just those few young and baggage-free enough to still be fairly educable), she accepts as an extra responsibility being appointed “key worker” to teen Jamie (Letitia Wright).
It’s a task nobody else wants. Jamie has her own problems, but the biggest is her joined-at-the-hip relationship with the volatile Leanne (Isabella Laughland). Both parentless, the girls are longtime besties with a great distrust of outsiders and all authority figures. They’re also both fast approaching 18, and the end of softball court sentencing, with two long records of juvenile offenses already trailing behind them.
Kate, who belongs to a community pop choir, takes appreciative note of Jamie’s taste in music (old-school R&B) and her singing voice. The lass has never been asked to join anything in her life, so despite some initial anxiety it’s an exhilarating step forward when she’s welcomed into this dedicated amateur musical group. This coincides with Leanne being sent to lockup for yet another serious infraction. Each time she returns, she resents more deeply her best/only mate’s new, independent goals and obligations, blaming “posh cow” Kate for driving them apart. This conflict escalates farther when Jamie gets a shot at a music-school scholarship, while rudderless, drugged-up Leanne threatens to drag them both into a permanent, prison-bound spiral.
Opening with footage of the 2011 Tottenham riots (where our fictive young heroines get into looting mischief, and which are also the subject of TIFF-screened docu “The Hard Stop”), “Urban Hymn” soon leaves behind any particular current-events specificity in favor of a fairly generic redemption-amidst-strife narrative in Nick Moorcroft’s workmanlike script.
Henderson is OK as a familiar type of movie do-gooder who’s in over her head but still manages to truly “make a difference.” Wright (of tube skein “Top Boy”) is adequate as Jamie, though she sticks overmuch to one emotionally withdrawn note, and her thin singing voice hardly seems to merit the enthusiasm showered on it. Her climactic concert recital here sums up the film’s shortcomings by being a tepid expression of familiar melodrama emotions that pic tries to pass off as revelatory. (Mercifully, “Hymn’s” second half phases out the appearances of the community choir, whose bland versions of patly inspirational tunes aren’t so far from Up With People terrain.)
In an admittedly showy role — one whose name rather needlessly reprises that of thesp’s role in the “Harry Potter” movies — Laughland is the standout here, conveying the bottomless anger that masks a vulnerability born from a young lifetime’s myriad rejections. Steven Mackintosh and Ian Hart play Kate’s skeptical but generally supportive husband and choirmaster, respectively; Billy Bragg turns up briefly as himself, promoting a real-life program (Jail Guitar Doors) of guitar lessons for correctional inmates.
Caton-Jones (“Rob Roy,” “This Boy’s Life”) keeps things moving with a brisk editorial pace and clean widescreen visual presentation, though material could have used a little more stylistic personality than pro design/tech package provides.