Perfect 10 is a bold, moving and immersive coming-of-age debut by rising star writer-director Eva Riley.
In the Balanceby Olivia Neilson
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
With its warm lighting, close-ups and lens flare, Perfect 10‘s mesmerising cinematography takes a leap into the pensive universe of young Leigh who trains hard as a gymnast, despite not having any parental support. Dazzling newcomer, Frankie Box, who is a gymnast herself, plays Leigh; a teenage girl full of spirit, who takes no bullshit, speaks truth to power, but who is also closed off and suffering inside after losing her mum, not having a father figure or any friendships in her life.
We are quickly made aware that Leigh doesn’t fit in with the other gym girls because of her economic background. Little signifiers of wealth and stability shine through the other girls’ bright, sparkly leotards and their well-kept nails. They are quick to judge, to taunt and bully Leigh for being the ‘charity case’ of the group. It is only Leigh’s coach, played by the strict but kind Sharlene Whyte, who actively supports her gymnastic talents, but who Leigh can tragically never be frank with. Leigh’s defences are up, and she is hard on herself, always on the cusp of giving up and collapse.
Filming her routine on her phone at home, there are strong echoes of Andrea Arnold’s magnificent social realist drama Fishtank, whose main character dances to escape her everyday feeling of entrapment. Directors Arnold and Riley both take a daring, honest look at how the arrival of a new man on the scene, whether it’s a stepfather or a half-brother, give their young female protagonists a new-found feeling of parental affection which is blurred with a developing sexuality. Riley hints that Leigh is starting to have feelings for her half-brother Joe with subtlety – a close-up on her hands as she holds his waist on the moped, a close-up on the back of his neck, and the moment she steals his attention from a girl he is dancing with by performing her backflips on the gravel. But it’s clear all Leigh really wants is to be seen, to be appreciated, to be supported and loved. With her half-brother now on the scene (effortlessly played by Alfie Deegan), this new relationship finally gives Leigh the love and support she needs, despite moving her dangerously close to delinquency.
Joining Joe on his jobs stealing petrol and bikes, Leigh is more interested in the bond that is starting to form with him and her new-found family. In one euphoric scene, their childlike nature is set free, as they chase each other in the countryside playing a game of It. In a rare tracking, long shot, Riley creates a monumental uplift, where we can finally breathe a sigh of relief after all the intimacy and tension the close-ups create. Leigh is set free; she can smile openly, laugh and cry, with a new-found sense of belonging.
Rather than following in the footsteps of Ken Loach’s devastating and traumatic depictions of working class life, Perfect 10’s power is in the knowledge of what could have happened; how easily a teenager like Leigh can take the wrong route and end up in a young offender’s ward. Riley treads the route of hope, much like in British director, Shola Amoo’s majestic The Last Tree, whose protagonist Femi becomes embroiled in the dark underbelly of London’s drug scene, but who ends up finding his way again, thanks to the redemptive power of family.
When Joe watches Leigh’s routine at the gym for the first time, she excels. All of her strength and power as a gymnast unveils like a flower blossoming, and all it took was having family in the audience; Joe’s warm, smiling eyes as he watches her from behind the little glass window at the gym. It’s a powerful moment of release and fortitude, topped by the moving end scene where Leigh and Joe ride on the moped together to a beautiful track by Angelo de Augustine. After having only used diegetic music in the film; with no score, and everything naturalistic, the simple act of introducing a song in the soundtrack at the denouement has a huge emotional impact, filled with pure hope and joy.
Set on the outskirts of Brighton, Riley veers her camera-eye away from the iconic pier and promenade, away from the sea and the arcades, away from the landmarks that make it a recognisable place, instead taking us to the nondescript seaside suburbs, where the hilly streets are lined with bungalows. Perfect 10‘s setting adds even more to the universality of the story and helps secure its status as a timeless, social realist masterpiece.
Perfect 10 is available to stream on BBC iPlayer, BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema, iTunes and Modern Films. It is longlisted for Debut Director, Debut Screenwriter and Breakthrough Producer at the BIFA_film awards 2020.