by Tom Beasley
One of the most intriguing trends in cinema over the course of the last decade is that of movies trying to work out how to depict a world which already contains thousands of cameras. When everyone is filming both themselves and others at all times, what’s the role of the movie camera? The red light is always blinking, which makes it difficult for cinema to find a different angle. One solution is found footage – beloved of dirt-cheap noughties horrors – but the more interesting arena is in reckoning with the way those cameras work, in the vein of a movie like Bo Burnham’s insightful Gen Z coming-of-age tale Eighth Grade.
That idea now gets a British spin with the innovative and compelling A Brixton Tale. Its title deliberately evokes classic storytelling traditions and there’s certainly a sort of modern parable feel to the way the story unfolds. Teenage filmmaker Leah (Lily Newmark) is a child of privilege and spends her time roaming Brixton, turning her voyeuristic camera lens on people she seems to regard as potential subjects rather than rounded humans. She becomes intrigued by friends Archie (Craige Middleburg) and Benji (Ola Orebiyi), who live on a nearby estate, and forms a bond with them which leads to a romantic spark with Benji. As their relationship builds, Leah works on a documentary about Benji’s life for art world family friend Tilda (Jaime Winstone).
Directing duo Darragh Carey and Bertrand Desrochers are careful to keep Leah’s motivations hidden. As much as the romantic scenes between her and Benji are bathed in romantic light and given the quality of dreamlike fantasy, Newmark’s mercurial performance leaves open the possibility she’s entirely faking it to get close to him for her documentary. The movie’s first half is a fascinating take on the ethics of art, particularly when tales of working class struggle in Black communities are framed via the perspective of privileged white creators. A scene in which Leah’s documentary plays to applause from the white audience and horror from its Black subjects is starkly powerful.
Most importantly, the film thrives on the obliviousness of privilege. Leah is a dispassionate observer of the world, while Benji and those around him are alive to the dangers and risks they face from all directions. After a tense encounter with a police officer, Leah mouths off and declares that Benji “has to learn how to stick up for yourself” – entirely unaware of why a Black man might have cause to be wary around cops. Leah’s world without consequence couldn’t be further from Benji’s, in which one false move could get you beaten up or worse.
Carey and Desrochers deliver grit and tension in scenes set on the estates of Brixton, without leaning in to grotesque “poverty porn” caricatures. The film is often strongest when it spotlights the bond between the central characters, with Rose Kerr delivering a memorable turn as Benji’s mother – a sort of tough-but-fair matriarch for the entire community. Orebiyi also stands out, with a nuanced take on the sort of person who has too often been shorn down to a single characteristic in British thrillers. Even the character of Archie – on paper, a broader and more comedic personality – is leant a tragic, resonant realism by Middleburg.
The film runs for just shy of 80 minutes and does, sadly, bear some of the scars of its troubled production, which was hit by budget and logistical difficulties. In its current form, the third act of the movie feels like a spin of the roulette wheel of kitchen sink story threads. The movie seems unable to decide which plotline to spotlight and, as a result, becomes messy and unfocused as it pushes into its final movement. Thankfully, the characters and the performances are strong enough to get the story over the line and leave the resonance of the much stronger first half in place.
A Brixton Tale is a terrific example of a British drama with a potent message about modern society at its heart. Some of that incisive commentary dissipates as its narrative unravels but, in the hands of two talented filmmakers, the movie has enough fire in its belly to ensure it leaves a mark when the credits roll.
A Brixton Tale is out in select cinemas now.