“There are just some people who should never reproduce,” says a curtain-twitching busybody about one of her neighbors in a drab housing estate in Harlow, England. It’s the kind of smug, ugly line all too often used to demean underprivileged families in Britain’s raging, ceaseless class battle — though in Fyzal Boulifa’s darkly perceptive suburban drama “Lynn + Lucy,” it’s a casual shot fired in an especially unhappy case of internal working-class warfare. Toughly updating an age-old strain of gossip-fueled neighborhood morality play, this story of female friendship undone by domestic tragedy plays as a kind of Sirkian melodrama for the Daily Mail age of tabloid hysteria — altogether an audacious, promise-confirming feature debut for Boulifa, whose shorts “Rate Me” and “The Curse” both took top honors in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes.
The involvement of Ken Loach’s Sixteen Films as a producing partner may lead some viewers to expect a more straightforward slab of social realism than what “Lynn + Lucy” serves up, though the film’s brittle Academy-ratio formalism and drily ironic stabs of comedy will come as less of a surprise to those acquainted with Boulifa’s shorts. Not all his directorial mannerisms entirely work in this context: There’s a deadpan detachment to the editing style, in particular, that sits less easily with the film’s eventual escalation into a charged, high-stakes tangle of ethics and consequences. Yet “Lynn + Lucy” isn’t glib or unfeeling: It accrues real mouth-drying power as its narrative keeps twisting the knife, thanks in no small part to a superbly matched pair of lead performances by Nichola Burley and newcomer Roxanne Scrimshaw.
It’s been several years since Burley, an auspicious presence in “Donkey Punch” and Andrea Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights,” has had a big-screen role of this magnitude. Perhaps that partially accounts for the restless, yearning energy she brings here to the role of Lucy, a blue-haired, formerly hard-partying Essex girl who, as the film opens, has surprised seemingly everyone — herself included — by becoming a mother for the first time. She’s only in her late twenties, though to hear her friends and neighbors speak of her, you’d think she’d taken up parenthood in middle age. Disapproving clucks are also made in the direction of her younger, somewhat feckless partner Clark (Samson Cox-Vinell); the age difference between them wouldn’t be of note if he weren’t so plainly unequal to the task of raising a child.
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Lucy has certainly lived a different timeline to lifelong best friend Lynn (Scrimshaw, a major street-cast find), who fell pregnant aged 16 and remains in a dutiful, passionless marriage to the father of her daughter Lola (Tia Nelson). Always more of a wallflower by nature, the shy, downtrodden Lynn sees motherhood as her one significant success in life; it’s all the more inexplicable to her, then, that Lucy, perhaps afflicted with postpartum depression, seems cagier about her new role. “Do you ever wonder if you’d be able to love them?” Lucy asks her. It’s a question that cruelly circles back to haunt both women when an appalling accident (or not) befalls her newborn, and the community rumor mill buzzes viciously with speculation as to exactly what happened behind thin walls — with the local hair salon where Lynn works, run by small-time queen bee Janelle (Jennifer Lee-Moon, excellent), as its petty epicenter.
Working in quick but vivid strokes, Boulifa and his stars precisely establish the dynamics of personality and power in the title characters’ lifelong friendship, whether they’re offering each other relationship advice or letting their hair down to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” (it’s “their song,” endearingly) in a local nightclub. Their bond may be indelibly symbolized by matching heart tattoos, though it takes less pressure than you might think to fracture it: It becomes clear how much it has hinged on the more outgoing, more conventionally pretty Lucy’s superior social capital in adolescence, and how much less that counts for as their glamorless thirties loom.
Effectively utilizing the stark, boxy aspect ratio favored by Andrea Arnold, Taina Galis’ brightly lit lensing is particularly artful at isolating characters in the frame, and by extension their hostile individual worlds. Despite the plus sign in the title, no two people appear truly together in “Lynn + Lucy,” where it’s every woman for herself, whatever vague community-minded sentiments they share between them.
With tense, hunched body language and a darting, downcast gaze, it’s Scrimshaw who shoulders more of the film’s dramatic burden as matters unfold: She movingly articulates Lynn’s internal conflict and subtly bolstered confidence as she gains more attention and authority than she has ever known from her best friend’s tragic local infamy. Boulifa leaves it for viewers to infer how this awful, tightly contained parable reflects on a contemporary British society susceptible to community consensus and hearsay, easily disseminated and distorted by social media and Mumsnet-style websites: The word “Brexit” is never uttered, but it’s not hard to hear it in the silence.