Writer and Director: Dionne Edwards
It is really inspiring to see a film in which the issue or activity affecting the central character doesn’t simultaneously become their entire personality as well. People are full of complexity and contradiction, of degrees of needs and behaviours which comes across well in Dionne Edwards’ excellent debut film Pretty Red Dress, a family story set in contemporary, recognisable London that the BFI London Film Festival is able to support so well.
Newly released from prison after serving a year, Travis goes home to long-term partner Candice who has aspirations to be in a West End show, and teenage daughter Kenisha who is getting into fights at school. When Travis buys Candice a shimmering red dress for an audition, the garment becomes a catalyst for change in the family as Travis finds it impossible to resist.
There is a really confident and smart first picture from Edwards who effortlessly blends the daily reality of urban living and the difficulties each character has pursuing their truth with a hope, an aspiration that drives each of them on. Candice can suffer her steady supermarket job because she might get to be Tina Turner on stage; Kenisha deals with school because there may be someone to love, and Travis has the dress and the moments he is alone to truly be himself.
And Edwards is careful not to apply labels to her central character – this is a not a straightforward story about transvestism, trans-gender issues or homosexuality but about a man who simply says “I want to feel pretty sometimes.” And by extension, it is the sometimes in that statement that Edwards presents so well. Travis is many things in this film, a father trying to understand and connect with his daughter, a boyfriend getting it wrong, a brother feeling in the shadow of his elder, more obviously successful sibling.
Edwards also uses a multicharacter narrative in Pretty Red Dress making Candice just as central to the plot as Travis and giving Kenisha a rounded secondary role which likewise helps to contextualise the things they want individually with their wider existence in a believably created family dealing with the difficult balance of all the things they are and want to be. And Edwards makes spending time with of these people equally rewarding for the audience.
Alexandra Burke all but steals this film with an outstanding performance as Motown-loving Candice, Burke is so natural onscreen and finds real depth and meaning in Candi, while frazzled by the demands of running a household. Natey Jones as Travis is impressive exploring masculinity and mental health as well as the challenges of trying to reconnect with his family while finding where he fits as an ex-prisoner and as a man wanting to sometimes wear a dress.
Pretty Red Dress could lose about 10-minutes from the running time, and a family party scene doesn’t tell the audience anything about these relationships that Edwards hasn’t already presented through more subtle interactions elsewhere in the story. But it is always wonderful to see some great London films in the Festival and like Been So Long and Rocks at the Festivals before it, this is a well-managed exploration of a what Travis needs. What a debut.
Pretty Red Dress is screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2022.