Isolation rules and comfort is cold in Scott Graham's gripping and emotionally tense feature debut. Based on his short film of the same name - although with a considerably altered story - it tells the tale of Shell (newcomer Chloe Pirrie, in a performance that will surely lead to many more). She lives with her father Pete (Joseph Mawle) in a remote petrol station in the Scottish Highlands, the down-at-heel sort of place that has probably never been anything other than struggling.

Shell and Pete are struggling, too. She is delicate, seeming almost as wild and timid as the deer that roam the locale but also unwittingly dangerous, just as they are if they walk in the path of an oncoming car. Her connections are few - her dad, and one or two regular customers (Michael Smiley, Iain de Caestecker and Kate Dickie all making a lasting impact in small roles). Pete, meanwhile, is damaged goods. Physically grappling with epilepsy, he still keenly feels the absence of his wife - who ran away when Shell was four - while his connection with his daughter is both difficult and disturbing. And so they live, she trying to somehow fill the void left by her mother, he torn between keeping his distance or treading dangerous ground.

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The desolate beauty of the landscape is mirrored by the lives of Shell and Pete. Cinematographer Yoliswa Gartig captures the brittle, wintry colours of northern Scotland, drab and washed out, as the wind - terrific sound work by Chris Campion - whips at Shell's bare legs and hair, even as the rest of her threatens to disappear into the folds of her Parka. This isn't a horror story but Graham amplifies the sense of oddness, as though Shell and her dad are caught somewhere out of time. Ordinary life may be rumbling close by, like the throb of a truck on the road, threatening to rattle them up, but their removal from it is almost complete.

Shell is on the cusp of womanhood, of wanting, of things she can't or doesn't want to understand. Those around her, meanwhile, are drawn to her hopefulness and warmth, even though none of them have much to offer save for, at best, momentary relief.

Occasionally, the metaphors threaten to intrude too much on Graham's carefully wrought film and his ending contains rather more drama than is necessary after what has gone before. Still, he and his cast tread carefully, like deer on a frozen lake. The writer/director wants his audience to find our own unsuspected cracks in the surface of Shell's life, to feel our way towards understanding. Trusting the viewer is a rare thing, he should be applauded for it.

Reviewed on: 29 Sep 2012
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An intense story of two people who struggle to keep their longings for freedom under control, set against a beautiful and remote landscape that reflects their isolation back at them.
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Director: Scott Graham

Writer: Scott Graham

Starring: Chloe Pirrie, Joseph Mawle, Iain de Caestecker, Paul Hickey, Kate Dickie, Michael Smiley

Year: 2012

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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