It’s five years since Theresa May, then the United Kingdom’s first prime minister of the Brexit era, coined the term “citizen of nowhere” to denigrate residents of the country who identified themselves more globally. Those three words swiftly became a media catchphrase to encapsulate the Conservative government’s apparent hostility toward immigrants; liberal-minded multinationals adopted the term as a badge of pride. Yet for the disenfranchised émigré who can’t go home again, but hasn’t found home in the U.K. either, it’s not such an easy label to claim: Transplanted to working-class Glasgow from West Africa, shorn of any sense of belonging anywhere, the wary, vulnerable mother and daughter at the heart of Adura Onashile’s tender character study “Girl” respond by making their world as small as possible — barely stretching beyond the front door of their shabby council apartment.
The gradual, pained steps they make toward social integration — in the process severing some apron strings knotted suffocatingly tight by trauma — mark the subtle curve of the drama in this accomplished but unshowy debut feature from Onashile, a British-Nigerian playwright here lightly expanding on themes raised in her auspicious 2020 short “Expensive Shit.” Would that “Girl” were so head-turningly titled: It’s a misleadingly bland moniker for a film that asserts quiet confidence in its sociopolitical shading and the neon-bright impressionism of its aesthetic. At a narrative level, however, this slender 84-minute drama nonetheless sags a little, occasionally feeling like a short film concept filled out with vivid texture alone. That won’t hinder Onashile’s Sundance competition premiere from making its mark at further festivals, and with select indie distributors; a warm homecoming awaits when its opens next month’s Glasgow fest.
Scotland’s most populous city has typically been presented on screen with a kind of overcast severity, typified by Andrea Arnold’s landmark debut “Red Road.” In collaboration with DP Tasha Back, Onashile casts it, literally, in a quite different light, seeking out brilliant jewel tones in its nighttime street life and the lurid oases of color — a shiny pink puffer jacket, a small ocean of eye-shadow, loud tangles of graffiti — that its residents create amid its more squalid corners.
Perhaps those are the highlights that single mother Grace (a superb Déborah Lukuemena) tries to see in a world so much darker and colder than her rural African birthplace; at the outset, she and 11-year-old daughter Ama (Le’Shantey Bonsu) paint their apartment in saturated tones of red earth and aubergine, making it a sanctuary from the drear outside. Ré Olunuga’s score likewise bridges disparate worlds, fusing stately orchestrations with African-inspired beats and percussion: echoes of home for Grace, perhaps, muted and modified by distance.
After a presumably challenging passage from Africa — motivated by patriarchal violence and abuse hinted at in escalatingly perilous flashbacks — it’s hardly surprising that these two survivors have made their modest home their castle. But the debilitatingly anxious Grace has made it more of a fortress, leaving only for her glum night shifts as a shopping mall cleaner, and forbidding the housebound, school-skipping Ama from opening the door to anyone. When Ama spots a fire in the opposite apartment block and calls the authorities, her cover is blown, to her mother’s chagrin. But while school brings the feelings of otherness and alienation they feared, it brings Ama an unexpected ally in cheery neighbour and classmate Fiona (Liana Turner).
What ensues is an increasingly fraught tug-of-war, as Grace — still only in her mid-twenties, but aged and burdened by anguish— resists her daughter’s burgeoning independence, fearing the consequences to their bond if only one of them begins to fit in. It’s a poignant parental crisis, though as a dramatic conflict, it doesn’t quite power “Girl” through a wandering second half in which characters’ incremental shifts in regard and outlook stand in for major incident.
With the script often sparse, Lukumuena’s finely shaded performance does much of the heavy lifting: Best known for her vibrantly funny, César-winning supporting turn in 2016’s “Divines,” the French actor proves just as compelling in a more restrained, even recessive mode, as a stoically proud, protective mother sometimes consumed by her neuroses. She’s persuasively matched and reflected by newcomer Bonsu, who grows in stature and expressivity as Ama opens herself to the outside world. A simple smile is hard-earned in this solemn, simple but keenly observed debut, promising not an abundantly happy ending but at least some better days for two citizens of nowhere, no longer so adrift.