Georgie, the suitably scrappy 12-year-old protagonist of “Scrapper,” is a near-professional bicycle thief. Expert at picking locks and making quick getaways, she steals the two-wheelers, fixes them up or strips them for parts, and sprays their reassembled frames with a new coat of paint before sending them on their way. Charlotte Regan, the freshman writer-director of this winsome British dramedy, knows a few things herself about making something new and shiny from pilfered parts. Tracking the gradual but inevitable thawing of relations between Georgie and the estranged father who breezes back into her life, Regan’s debut rehashes a host of familiar elements from from assorted kitchen-sink dramas and dysfunctional parent-child stories, painting them colorfully enough that audiences won’t mind the odd bit of rust.
Still, viewed beside other recent breakouts in the British indie bracket — not least a certain other bittersweet father-daughter study directed by a novice named Charlotte — this premiere from Sundance’s world dramatic competition can’t help but feel a little second-hand. Even its quirkiest stylistic flourishes, most notably a mockumentary framing device which sees minor characters commenting on matters from the sidelines, aren’t exactly daring. What might strike viewers as freshest about “Scrapper” are the peppy aesthetic and springy pastel palette it applies to a genre and milieu traditionally dominated by grit and gray. If that lends a precious fairytale air to this slice of social realism, that appears to be the point.
As Georgie, appealingly spunky newcomer Lola Campbell fits right in with this heightened blend of Ken Loach and Wes Anderson. Reeling off impudent dialogue with cheeky comic timing and a killer command of the withering eye-roll, she’s a natural, but a performer in every aspect. That may be fitting, given that Georgie, who has been living alone in a shabby London council house since her mother died of cancer, is quite used to putting on a precocious front — lying to teachers, social workers and concerned adults about her home situation, and feigning to all, even herself, that she’s more okay than she is. Only her one friend Ali (Alin Uzun) — her only peer willing to put up with her ill-tempered sass — knows how alone she is, and can only do so much to fill the void.
That is, until Georgie’s father Jason (the wonderful Harris Dickinson) turns up on the scene without warning, having bailed on his daughter and her mother years before to chase the sweet life on the Costa del Sol. Abruptly moving back into the house despite Georgie’s attempts to evict him, he soon proves useful enough as a buffer for snooping adults, but she’s determined not to warm to him — until, inevitably, they discover they have more in common than just DNA.
There are no surprises here as these two sly wastrels repair their relationship, and in a running time of just 84 minutes, there’s hardly time to rifle through their deeper, darker baggage. But the reunion is touching, in no small part thanks to the furrowed, believable conviction Dickinson brings to the potentially stock character of a bad boy made good. Jason was barely a man when he fathered Georgie, which is how he justifies having left in her infancy; a decade later, his badly bleached crew cut and gym-rat wardrobe are only the most immediately obvious signifiers that he still has much growing-up to do. But Dickinson, both jocular and misty-eyed, plays Jason’s laddish immaturity with a nervy undertow of sorrow, a sense that he’s seen the brink of self-ruin — and will pull his daughter back from it whether she wants his help or not.
Those hints of harder, uglier truths sit a bit oddly with “Scrapper’s” overriding cuteness, not quite belonging to the same world where sagging rows of government housing are painted in matchy-matchy ice-cream hues, where Georgie’s terrorized classmates wryly editorialize to camera (in pristinely composed Super 16 compositions) while wearing coordinated outfits, or where, in the film’s most overtly whimsical diversion, spiders voice their, er, fly-on-the-wall thoughts in comic-style speech bubbles. (Georgie, tough customer that she is, has a soft enough heart to resist vacuuming them up in the living room.)
DP Molly Manning Walker’s vibrant, stock-shifting lensing deftly negotiates the film’s toggling impulses between social and magic realism, while production designer Elena Muntoni finds a clever balance between mundanely escapist decorative flourishes — like the cotton-candy clouds painted on a bedroom wall — and Georgie’s actual flights of fantasy, like the scrap-metal tower she builds to the sky in a locked spare room. Reality eventually makes cruel but necessary intrusions in her life, and in Regan’s film too: Both are stronger for the disruption.