“I don’t run away from nothing, I run to it,” says Gemma, the quietly resilient teenager at the center of “Scheme Birds.” Few would blame her for doing the reverse, having been abandoned in infanthood by her parents in the harsh projects of Motherwell, a deprived, lusterless Scottish town a few miles outside Glasgow. It’s a home that does little to reward her loyalty, yet at the outset, at least, there’s nowhere Gemma would rather be: Admitting that she expects to spend her whole life in this deprived corner of Motherwell, she then breaks sunnily with glum kitchen-sink tradition by saying she hopes never to leave. That will change, as will many aspects of her life, by the end of Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin’s superb documentary, an alternately lyrical and gut-punching coming-of-age study in which girls like Gemma become women — and wounded women at that — altogether too soon.
Shot with an eye and ear for poetry in the pavement cracks, “Scheme Birds” recalls in its best passages the outsider affinity and sensory, symbol-heavy aesthetic of Andrea Arnold’s narrative cinema; as a feature-length debut for Swedish duo Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin, it’s a work of major promise. Their bracing nonnative perspective is subtly felt throughout a caught-in-the-margins study that evokes working-class life with great textural specificity, but no self-consciously gritty posturing. With only Gemma’s low-key, sometimes wistfully perceptive voiceover as our guide through events, meanwhile, political commentary is mostly left for the audience to infer. (Suffice it to say, however, that the film’s snapshot of social welfare in modern Tory Britain is not a rosy one.)
The one politician who does get a namecheck is Margaret Thatcher, whom Gemma mentions with shrugging indifference as the woman responsible for Motherwell’s bleak prospects, having shut down its once-thriving steelworks toward the end of her premiership. That may be ancient history to Gemma — who was born in 1997, the year the factories were finally demolished — but she’s inherited the jaded resignation of her elders, notably her grandfather-turned-guardian Joseph. “If you stay here, you either get locked up or knocked up,” she observes drolly, and not even that dejectedly; she accepts the latter fate as a welcome inevitability.
Viewers may feel rather less sanguine on her behalf when the independent-minded teen duly falls pregnant by Pat, a scrawny, unruly kid who has racked up a precocious amount of jail time at his early age. Gemma believes his claim that the baby represents a fresh, clean start for him; Joseph, a seen-it-all boxing gym manager and pigeon fancier, is understandably less convinced, though he cuts his granddaughter loose to make her own mistakes. Tough love is the only kind Gemma has ever known, and she’d be lucky to get even that from Pat, who sinks shortly after the baby’s birth into a self-oriented spiral of partying and alcoholism. Peers provide scattered succour and support, but have pregnancies and crises of their own to deal with: It’s when her best friend’s life is drastically altered by a random, horrific act of violence that Gemma finally reconsiders a future she once thought was entirely predetermined.
Seamlessly editing the events of several years into one fluid, bittersweet character arc, “Scheme Birds” — the title is a local term for residents of the government housing scheme where Gemma lives, though it has other metaphorical applications — follows its subject with such dedicated intimacy that it often plays as much like Loachian social realism as actual documentary. It’s easy to take the camera’s attentive but non-invasive presence for granted in situations ranging from a makeshift kitchen tattoo session to a young yob’s heedless, boastful account of past stabbings, but the degree of evident trust between the directors and their human subjects is still striking.
Hallin, an accomplished cinematographer who most recently shot the Lukas Moodysson miniseries “Gösta,” takes lensing duties here too, avoiding dour visual cliché throughout. The film’s palette is rich in pastel sunlight and tender flesh tones; even at moments of despair, suggestions of hope and humanity hover in the frame. Only occasionally does “Scheme Birds” give in to artsy contrivance. A slow-motion shot of Joseph releasing his treasured homing pigeons into the air underlines the film’s caged-bird metaphor more heavily than is needed — though it’s not as if Gemma, who has the words “let the free birds fly” tattooed on her shoulder, sees herself any differently. Empathetically concerned but never condescending, this chronicle of life in fast-forward consistently meets its heroine on her own evolving terms.