The facts of the matter are grim in “Scrapper.” A woman dies and leaves behind her 12-year-old daughter, Georgie (Lola Campbell). The father is not in the picture. Georgie doesn’t want to be put into the foster care system, so she sets up an elaborate lie system, telling the school and social services she is living with her uncle, Winston Churchill. She ropes in a convenience store clerk to pretend to be her uncle, making voice recordings to play back to any government official who calls. She makes money by stealing bikes and selling them for scraps. She stays in the house where she grew up, ensuring everything is as her mother left it. Georgie has no adult supervision. Until one day, out of the blue, a man crawls over the back fence and presents himself to her, in his tracksuit and peroxide-blonde hair, as her long-lost father, Jason (Harris Dickinson).
You could see how “Scrapper,” and all these details, could be played for tragedy or melodrama, even. But writer/director Charlotte Regan establishes a fluid, flexible tone and mood, giving her enormous freedom with the material. The fluidity allows for whimsy, pathos, tenderness, humor, and even meta-asides, where neighbors turn to the camera and comment on the action, functioning as a judgmental Greek chorus.
You know Georgie can’t go on like this forever. Eventually, the “state” will catch up to her. Her best friend Ali (Alin Uzun) is her partner-in-crime and confidante. They steal bikes together; they monitor Georgie’s procession through the “stages of grief.” Ali asks, “What stage are you on now?” Ali knows everything about her.
When Jason shows up, everything changes. Georgie is not happy to see Jason. He left her and her mum, didn’t he? But Ali likes Jason. And why wouldn’t he? Jason is a big kid himself. He looks like his fashion sense stopped with the advent of Slim Shady circa 2000. Where has Jason been all this time? It’s unclear. His sense of responsibility towards Georgie is vague, but he knows he feels it. Georgie, though, seems so fine on her own, so capable, so creative … what does she even need from him? He tries to be of service. It’s not “appropriate” for a father to advise his child to scrape the serial numbers off a stolen bike before re-painting it, but it makes sense (and it’s funny). Georgie’s mother taught her how to keep a house, make lists, and be organized. Once we meet Jason, we realize just how close the fallen apple is to the tree.
While comparisons with “Aftersun” seem (and are) inevitable, the films don’t have much in common, except for the rarity of highlighting a father-daughter relationship. “Scrapper” harkens further back to the tomboy films in the 1970s and early ’80s (I wrote about the Golden Age of tomboy films for Film Comment), movies like “The Bad News Bears,” “Paper Moon,” “Candleshoe,” films starring tough little girls like Jodie Foster, Tatum O’Neal, Linda Manz, and Kristy McNichol. Films where girls, abandoned by parental figures and the adult world in general, maneuver by their wits through a tricky, uncaring world. Little girls with a criminal mindset. Peter Bogdanovich’s “Paper Moon” may be the closest connection to “Scrapper,” although the tone is entirely different. In both, a deadbeat dad returns to the homefront when hearing of the death of the woman he abandoned, only to be confronted by a small, scrappy, scowling girl, not at all the pliant, submissive child he expected. Dad is a grifter/trickster, and daughter is as well. What could go wrong?
Dickinson has quickly established himself as a talented character actor in a leading man’s body. He was so quietly tormented and viscerally physical in Eliza Hittman’s “Beach Rats,” he was a Pretty-Boy-Avatar in Steve McLean’s “Postcards from London,” aggressively heterosexual in Xavier Dolan’s “Matthias & Maxime” (so aggressive you know he’s hiding something), and then gorgeously empty in “Triangle of Sadness.” Dickinson is choosing such fascinating projects, and here he is perfect as the man-boy Jason, whose essential kindness has not been trampled out of him but who is about the same age emotionally as his tough-talking, straight-shooting daughter.
Lola Campbell is the center of every scene. “Scrapper” is her film. It is Campbell’s only credit. You would never know. She brings to it the verisimilitude of real life; she’s not a trained, coached child actor. She is real. The dynamic between Dickinson and Campbell is authentic and surprising. Although Georgie is self-sufficient, she is still a child and misses her mum. Our culture doesn’t allow space for grief, and Georgie’s grief threatens to overwhelm her. Much of what she does is a way to cope with the vast space left by her mother’s death.
It would be a mistake to write off Regan’s stylistic flourishes—the color-coded Greek chorus neighbors, the moments of almost comic-book humor coming from Georgie’s childish POV—as “twee” or cutesy or arch. They aren’t. Georgie collects scraps to survive, and the film is made up of scraps too. “Scrapper” is about resilience, as the title says, but it’s the resilience of a certain kind. It’s makeshift and messy. It’s a heap of scrap metal piled up into something beautiful but scary. It’s vaguely criminal. The resilience in “Scrapper” is a type of lived creativity, an imaginative space where Georgie—and her father—make up their own rules and their own world. This is an amazing directorial debut.
Now playing in theaters.