Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Although the issues of trauma and recovery being dealt with here are not exactly easy watching, Onashile shoots the film with a fluidity and grace." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

There’s a constant sense of closeness in Girl. There’s the conspiratorial closeness of a story shared so many times between mum and daughter that either can take over its narration. Then there’s the warm closeness of skin on skin in a moment of silence or the unexpected closeness offered by a new friend. But closeness in Adura Onashile’s debut feature also reveals its darker side - the threat offered by the closeness of people who are prejudiced against you in a Glasgow high-rise or the way past trauma can breath down the neck of the present.

There’s also a closer than average distance in age between single mum Grace (Déborah Lukumuena), who is in her twenties, and her 11-year-old daughter Ama (Le’Shantey Bonsu), for reasons which will be revealed through the course of the film. She could be Ama’s older sister and the pair operate like a unit, the strength of their relationship fused by migration from Africa to Glasgow, where they live in a high-rise flat.

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The flat is their world, where Grace, in particular, feels safe and where the pair of them chat about their dream house at night. Grace works as a cleaner in the small hours, and when she leaves, a whole other world opens up for Ama thanks to a pair of binoculars. With them she can look at the brightly lit big wheel in the distance and peep into the various homes nearby - her face seeming to reflect the glow of what’s beyond the window thanks to the careful lighting design captured beautifully by cinematographer Tasha Back, which runs through the film. It’s on one such evening that she spots a fire breaking out - a plot move that recalls the horrors of Grenfell Tower - and, despite her mum’s warnings to keep a low profile, she alerts the neighbourhood.

This is just one catalyst for the sort of change Grace fears, because Ama is also on the cusp of adolescence, the first underarm hairs starting to poke through along with a changing perspective on the world that may not fully align with her mum’s. A friendship with Fiona (Liana Turner) gives Ama someone else in the world to connect with, which becomes a problem for Grace, as does social services. Other debuts are recalled - Andrea Arnold's Red Road and Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher - but only in terms of setting rather than style.

Although the issues of trauma and recovery being dealt with here are not exactly easy watching, Onashile shoots the film with a fluidity and grace. For all the past trauma, there is much about Grace and Ama’s lives that they would consider beautiful and Onashile never lets us forget this. Where other directors might choose sharp cool light and an urban soundtrack, Onashile opts for the glowing purples and yellows of the night and choral voices in an unusual score from Ré Olunuga that speak to hopefulness rather than gloom. Even the clothes Ama and Grace wear, though lived in, are colourful and cosy.

Lukumuena, whose English-language debut this is, is establishing herself as a star with a presence that can work just as well with silence as script. She picked up a Cesar for Divines and proved more than a match for Gérard Depardieu in terms of thoughtful, physical performance Robust. She may be quite fierce and even selfish with Ama but she lets love, hurt and uncertainty flutter beneath. Newcomers Bonsu and Turner bring an entirely different brand of energy, with Bonsu, in particular, ably conveying the different way Ama feels around her mum and her new-found friend.

Onashile has accrued awards every step of the way during her career, from a Fringe First for her play Expensive Shit, which she went on to adapt into a short film which won both the jury and audience awards at Glasgow Film Festival in 2021. As she returns to Glasgow with the film for the opening night after her world premiere at Sundance, there’s every chance more accolades await her distinctive and emotionally resonant debut.

Reviewed on: 26 Jan 2023
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Eleven-year-old Ama and her mother, Grace, take solace in the gentle but isolated world they obsessively create. Ama’s growing up threatens the boundaries of their tenderness and forces Grace to reckon with a past she struggles to forget.
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Director: Adura Onashile

Writer: Adura Onashile

Starring: Déborah Lukumuena, Danny Sapani, Le'Shantey Bonsu, Liana Turner

Year: 2023

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: UK

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