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Perfect 10: Eva Riley makes a notable debut

‘Perfect 10’: London Review

Dir/scr. Eva Riley. UK. 2019. 84 mins.

With Perfect 10, Scottish writer/director Eva Riley turns a plucky and compassionate coming-of-age tale into a memorable feature debut, all while unearthing a shining talent in fellow first-timer Frankie Box. Charting the life of a grief-stricken aspiring gymnast after she meets the half-brother she didn’t know existed, this is an astutely judged and expressively shot film that always resounds with authenticity, even though it might not score the highest marks for originality, narrative-wise.

This is an intimate portrait, particularly in its big moments

Like Andrea Arnold, the filmmaker whose work Perfect 10 instantly recalls, Riley possesses a strong sense of both her protagonist and the teenager’s Brighton-set existence — including the doubts niggling away at the lonely outsider. These include the anxiety of rarely finding stable footing on or off the gym floor, and the eye-opening upheaval, and even alluring danger, that her new sibling represents. The end result often plays like Fish Tank by way of The Fits, complete with restless cinematography that looks the part. Under the right guidance, Riley’s film should also attract modest interest beyond the festival circuit, drawing audiences in with its texture, thoughtfulness and standout central performance.

Perfect 10 makes its most obvious move at the outset, introducing Leigh (Box) as she hangs from the horizontal bars. Her perspective is visibly upended, matching her life, thoughts and feelings — which, with her mother gone and her widower father (William Ash) barely paying much notice, is all to be expected. As Leigh trains for her next big competition, coach Gemma (Sharlene Whyte) offers the kindness that’s lacking elsewhere, but the girl remains wary, especially after her taunting peers dub her a charity case. Worst of all, she has lost not only her self-confidence, but her enthusiasm. It’s only at home alone that she finds any enjoyment in a pastime that brings up memories of her mum.

It’s in one of these solo moments that Joe (Alfie Deegan) barges in, announces their blood bond and makes his presence known. He’s cheeky, charming and clearly unconcerned with abiding by any rules (his main source of income is pilfering petrol, before graduating to stealing motorbikes and eventually getting Leigh involved). Still, even when he’s leading her away from the straight and narrow, he’s a natural big brother, connecting with his confused sister as only a sibling can. Riley’s layered script is unafraid to show both the beneficial and problematic aspects of their relationship, or to explore the fallout from challenging Leigh’s closed-off status quo.

Both newcomers, Box and Deegan give their characters the requisite tough outer shells and vulnerable centres, but never play them like the clichés they could have become. Even when Leigh is initially tentative about Joe and his law-breaking ways, there’s an easy rapport between the two young actors. There’s also palpable affection in their deep-and-meaningful conversations, which cycle between earnest and awkward only because they’ve been purposefully written that way.

Although Riley gives her two key talents ample time together, it’s Box who demands attention from the camera. Hers is a spiky yet soulful performance, with her inner jitteriness matched by Steven Cameron Ferguson’s handheld visuals. Indeed, while Perfect 10’s production design, costuming and lighting favours naturalism, it’s notable that its gymnastic scenes stick close to its protagonist, letting her twirl and somersault in and out of the frame rather than veering back to watch on from afar. This is an intimate portrait, particularly in its big moments — as aided by a tender gaze that’s both unflinching and moving.

Production companies: The Bureau, Ngauruhoe, IFeatures

International sales: The Bureau Sales,

Producers: Jacob Thomas, Valentina Brazzini, Bertrand Faivre

Cinematography: Steven Cameron Ferguson

Editing: Abolfazl Talooni

Production design: Sarah Jenneson

Music: Terence Dunn

Main cast: Frankie Box, Alfie Deegan, Sharlene Whyte, William Ash