Writer and Director: Eva Riley
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
While the big movies may draw the crowds, the London Film Festival has always been the place to spot emerging talent both in front and behind the camera, and this year several female writers and directors have debut movies to share. Eva Riley’s Perfect 10 is a charming coming-of-age story, a female-led narrative that draws on the traditions and styles of independent British filmmaking while developing an intimate character study of young gymnast who finds an unexpected confidence.
Facing a local gymnastics competition and bullied by the mean girls at her club, 14-year old Leigh cannot get through her floor routine. One day, the elder brother she never knew she had arrives to stay at the home she shares with her incompetent widowed father, and soon Leigh is introduced to his moped gang who steal machines for fun. Desperate to earn Joe’s respect, she forces herself into his life where a complicated bond develops between the siblings.
Riley’s film is notably influenced by the work of Andrea Arnold – the working class focus, the use of unknown actors and the fascinating contrast between urban living and the natural world that have been so prevalent in Arnold’s films. As with Fish Tank, Leigh is a young woman with limited opportunities who has found a passion that a replacement masculine figure is able to encourage, and through the ambiguity of that relationship she finds the inner reserve and self-belief she needs.
But this is no straightforward homage and Riley makes the style her own, creating an intimacy between the characters that develops credibly during the period of the story, while really showcasing the conflicted feelings and testing of emotional boundaries that are so recognisable in mid-adolescence. The ways in which Leigh is shown to explore her responses, to try to make sense of the admiration and attraction she feels to Joe is really engaging, and while Riley never shies away from the awkwardness of Leigh’s behaviour at times, the viewer understands the psychological drivers that determine the reactions and restrictions placed on Leigh and Joe.
Also making her debut is Frankie Box as Leigh who conveys the interior confusion of the young gymnast with skill. The absence of her mother and loneliness is keenly felt, while the thrill of performing her routine create rare moments of light in her face, matched only by the expressive freedom she finds in Joe’s world and desperation to win his attention. As the plot tightens around her Box shows Leigh’s dilemma and how easy it would be to take the wrong path, but ensures an essential decency sits beneath her acts of rebellion.
Joe would be an easy role to caricature, the swaggering gang member and lout who cares about nothing but having a good time. But Riley and actor Alfie Deegan have created someone far more interesting, having to fight for his place in the gang’s hierarchy and frustrated by paternal abandonment, while developing a genuine affection for his new little sister. There are some sweet scenes as Joe encourages Leigh to perform and Deegan delivers an interesting perspective on modern masculinity that has a caring nature beneath the illusion of a harder surface.
The deprived and sometimes brutal context of Leigh and Joe’s life is only hinted at and perhaps not enough is made of their father’s (William Ash) secret as well as his inability to financially or emotionally support his family that create this feeling of isolation in the children, but Perfect 10 showcases Riley’s intimate control of character development, suggesting a writer and director with considerable potential.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October