“Sit down; something’s happened.” By the time Polly (a convincingly surly Morgan Watkins) makes this pronouncement to his developmentally challenged younger brother Richard (a riveting Scott Chambers) we’re steeped enough in the world of Joe Stephenson’s “Chicken” — a rural Norfolk, England, of dingy caravans, petty theft and breakfast-time Marmite beverages served in scabbed mugs — to know that there’s no chance it will be something good. But Stephenson’s pure-hearted intentions mostly power his debut through its misery-laden moments, and whenever they threaten to overwhelm the narrative, there’s always Chambers’ wrenchingly authentic performance to marvel at. The pitfalls of playing a mentally disabled character are well documented, but his portrait is both physically and psychologically convincing, and if the film wins its reckless game of cinematic chicken, leaning into its weighty and ostensibly off-putting themes of disability, poverty and violence without flinching, it’s largely because of this remarkable turn — a little miracle of compassion entirely unalloyed by condescension.
From the base of the brothers’ caravan hovel, set up in a field whose owners barely tolerate their presence, Polly grafts and grifts around the local scrapyard, but his volatile nature makes continued employment unlikely. Meanwhile, Richard putters around the area, trying to steal (or “borrow”) from the local residents, and chattering good-humoredly to his beloved “very beautiful” pet chicken, Fiona. His naivete makes it a Peter Rabbit-like existence, replete with irate farmers in hot pursuit and a little barnyard diorama featuring dead bunnies dressed in makeshift clothes. From Eben Bolter’s pleasant, verdant photography to Tom Linden’s score, which rather overuses an insistently winsome piano theme, the time spent with Richard is cued as bucolic, even happy-go-lucky. But underneath the breeziness that seems to emanate from Richard’s beatific good nature and hesitant, lopsided smile, dark currents are roiling.
Richard strikes up a tentative, odd-couple friendship with Annabelle (Yasmin Paige), the dismissive, London-bred daughter of the local landowner, who seems to view him at first as a pet, before coming to care for him — a transition that could have used a couple more scenes of development. Meanwhile Polly, harboring a sordid (and narratively unnecessary) family secret, has the potential of a new job that will take him away from Richard, and he becomes increasingly violent and impatient with his uncomprehending and doggedly devoted brother.
The film is adapted by Chris New from a play by Freddie Machin, and indeed it was Chambers who originated the role of Richard on stage, which partially accounts for his seamlessly immersive performance. In fact, he’s so good that Stephenson’s only real misstep (and the only element that betrays a slight lack of directorial clarity in what is otherwise an impressive first feature) is a script that cleaves too closely to the play’s storyline. This yields some melodramatic revelations in the final act that feel contrived in their timing and tenor, despite how convincingly they’re played. It’s almost as though the film is not quite aware of just what it has in that performance — as if the simple observation of this beautiful and difficult character contending with everyday upheavals were somehow not enough without a finale that’s flush with literal and metaphorical pyrotechnics.
Still, “Chicken,” which debuts in North America on iTunes this week, is a remarkably solid and sincere look at lives marginalized several times over, collected around an achingly honest breakout turn. “I’m harmless, ain’t I?” Richard says at one point, parroting a phrase he’s probably heard repeated about himself a hundred times, but it’s not wholly true: As portrayed by Chambers, he may well harm your tissue supply — and your heart.