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Edinburgh International Film Festival 2015 – British Highlights: CHICKEN
June 23, 2015
It’d be quite easy to dismiss Chicken as yet another kitchen-sink-drama given how the genre seems to be norm in British cinema, especially for young filmmakers at their feature debut. Yet this strikingly intense little film transcends those boundaries and socio-humanistic drama sounds more appropriate if we really have to categorize it, although the first definition that came to mind as credits rolled was ‘modernistic Dickensian fairy tale’.
Set in rural England but without details on the location, this lack of specificity perfectly fits the film’s atmosphere and the world of its protagonist, Richard (Scott Chambers), a fifteen years old boy with learning disabilities who lives with his older brother Polly (Morgan Watkins) in a run-down caravan on a farm land. However, ‘surviving’ probably sounds like a more suitable word to describe their life as Polly works at a scrap yard and earns crumbs that he promptly wastes in booze each night. Richard meanwhile dwells in poor hygienic conditions and starves with stale bread leftovers and whatever bits of vegetables he finds on the farm.
Despite this bleak scenario, Richard goes about his day with a smile on his face, wandering the farmland with his only friend, a hen named Fiona, the titular chicken indeed, although there’s obviously a deeper symbolism behind the film’s title. Director Joe Stephenson makes sure we get Richard’s world right from the start as he opens the film following the young boy in one of his early morning walks, a sort of ritual patrolling of the land, collecting any dead animals he might stumble upon which he dresses up and places in some sort of small scale fair set up in a barn with any colorful scraps he gets his hands on.
We instantly fall in love with Richard’s endearingly creative ways of coping with the hardships that life has unleashed on him. Yet the filmmaker avoids looking at his character with pity and he rather creates empathy by instilling a lot of respect for this boy. In spite of titanic adversity Richard goes through life with optimism and tries to take care of his older brother when he actually should be the one in need of attention. What Richard truly needs though isn’t just a proper roof over his head, clean clothes, running water and warm meals. What he misses and craves for is love. Something he understands way better than any ‘normal’ person but has never experienced first-hand.
In such a character-driven film with a paper-thin plot, it’s inevitable that the characters’ backstory is saved for the climactic moment but it’s soon evident how the topic of family is taboo as Polly blasts at Richard when the boy barely hints at a mention of their mother. Polly is fueled by resentment towards the situation he’s in as if it were the air he breathes. Once again though, the filmmakers don’t oversimplify the character into a monochromatic villainous figure. There’s more depth than meets the eye to Polly as we see him exploited by his boss and when a new landowner buys the farmland and cuts the power from their caravan, we sense how he feels overwhelmed and trapped, being responsible for Richard, since he can’t even take care of himself.
However, something, or actually someone is bound to appear and break the confines of these siblings’ life equation. Her name is Annabell (Yasmin Paige) and she’s the rebellious teenage daughter of the new landowners who’s been forced to move to the countryside against her will and is hating every second of it as we see her desperately trying to get signal for her mobile phone. When she meets Richard, she’s intrigued by the boy’s personality and even if at first she probably hangs out with him out of boredom, for lack of better options, the more she gets to know him, the more she likes him exactly for the unique person Richard is.
Fear not though, this isn’t a pity-friendship or even worse an impossible romance that could go even more horribly wrong by adding Polly to the picture. The focus here remains Richard and the relationship with his brother and if anything, Annabell’s arc from bored teenager to caring friend heightens and defines all that. The wonderful Yasmin Page (Submarine, The Double) who resembles more and more a young Minnie Driver, plays such evolution with understated nuance and reminds us that the whole ‘nature vs nurture’ theory has more grey areas than we’d expect. Despite blood ties, Polly sees Richard as a burden that prevents him from moving on with his life and as a result he cowardly unleashes all his anger and frustration on the poor boy which is hard to justify, no matter how messed up their past must’ve been. Annabell is a total stranger and a spoiled teenage girl with first world problems on the surface, yet Richard ignites such empathy in her that she doesn’t seem to have experienced before.
Richard has never been treated with kindness, let alone love, he doesn’t have any friends except that chicken, yet his humanity is deeply moving and his hopeful spirit contagious. Scott Chambers, at his feature film debut here as well, simply mesmerises in the way he’s built this character’s physical, psychological and emotional traits. From a peculiar speech pattern and tone of voice to body mannerism and facial expression, he perfectly embodies this peculiar boy with every fiber of his being, avoiding any over the top cliché he could’ve easily stumbled on. The convincing and humorous way he engages in conversations with his hen is a delight to watch whilst his expressive eyes speak volumes and make us feel so enthralled in his emotional state, the intensity of his pain equal to that of his innocent happiness, that we can’t help but feel the need to leap off into the screen and give him a hug.
Director Joe Stephenson surprises with the way he handles such delicate material in his feature debut, being only in his early twenties. Talent always needs nurturing but some of it is innate and both the young filmmaker and his even younger star have buckets to share with the world. Based on a 2011 fringe-theatre play of the same name by Freddie Machin, Chicken was adapted for the screen by actor Chris New, yes, one of the two exceptional thespian halves in Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, who seems to have now focused on working more behind the camera. The stage nature of the piece often oozes on the screen but he’s done overall a solid job at making the story more cinematic, although the script could’ve expanded the scope a little bit more for the silver screen.
Yet for an independent film on a tiny budget, Stephenson makes up for it with a confident sense of visual composition and colour palette. He’s not afraid to make the most out of the idyllic locale and uses wide shots to encompass a space that in the end is a character in itself. He draws us in with smooth tracking shots and lets the characters breathe in their environment rather than trapping them in overbearingly tight close ups like many indie films do for most of their running time. But besides showing his understanding of the cinematic language, the young filmmaker understands his characters and leads his cast with assured pacing and tone.
There’s a common denominator of talented youth in front of and behind the camera in Chicken, an emotional triumph that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit. It is humbling to witness how such a young filmmaker and actor gracefully tell this thematically complex tale with such a generous amount of maturity and sensibility. Scott Chambers is a true find as Richard, creating a character that could‘ve easily turned into caricature and offering a breakthrough performance. He not only infuses a challenging role with believability but he perfectly captures the character’s two extremes of hope and despair so beautifully it aches to watch him.
Stephenson impresses as well with a striking wisdom beyond his young age. With a visual and emotional palette reminiscent of British flicks in the same narrative realm like The Selfish Giant, Chicken is one of those films that stir up such an internal turmoil you keep thinking about it for days after credits roll: a modern day fairy tale dipped in social commentary with Dickensian undertones from fresh British talent that more than just a promise, is already a beautiful reality.
Chicken screens at Edinburgh International Film Festival on June 27th. Get your tickets here
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor