High bars and low expectations collide in Eva Riley’s debut feature about a young gymnast struggling to keep the balance in her home life – a delicately downbeat indie that comes with all the excitement of watching a fresh new British talent finding her feet behind the camera.
Brighton teen Leigh (newcomer Frankie Box) is sullen and sulky for a reason. She’s trapped on the fringes of South-Coast scuzz with no money, an almost invisible dad (William Ash), and zero hopes for the future. Her only outlet is an after-school gymnastics club, but even there the other kids call her a charity case and the coach (Sharlene Whyte) is running out of patience as she keeps failing to focus during her big routine. With mum gone and her horizons shrinking, Leigh’s self-confidence is on the floor.
Things start picking up when her step-brother Joe (another newbie, Alfie Deegan) shows up and starts pulling her into his night-time orbit of nicking petrol, joyriding motorbikes, and hanging out with the local bad boys, but Joe eventually messes with Leigh’s head even more as she starts falling for him.
Riley’s subtle script treads carefully around the big emotions, keeping Leigh and Joe’s gently simmering relationship as confusing as it needs to be. Perfect 10 also stays a safe distance from the genre traps of every other sports movie that weaves a story of personal redemption around a big set-piece match/game/dance – even the hard-earned finale leaves you with the feeling that everything is still a long way from being OK.
Riley’s real skill is in underplaying everything that matters most, keeping the film honest even when it feels slight. Rightly compared to Andrea Arnold’s 2009 drama Fish Tank when it landed on the festival circuit last year, Perfect 10 actually feels closer to the grander ambitions of Arnold’s 2016 American Honey, or as a low-fi British companion piece to this year’s American sleeper hit Waves. The hard edges are sometimes softened too much with cinematic flair (bike rides into magic realism reveal where Riley might head next with more confidence and a bigger budget) but it’s still rare to see a first-time director keep so much focus in the frame; tenderly unpicking the seams of a fragile teen in the middle of a crisis.
None of it would work, of course, if it wasn’t for Box’s standout performance. Occasionally trying too hard to act ‘street’, it’s still a seriously impressive first role for any 15-year-old to take on – and Box dances through the film’s tough themes with just as much dexterity as Riley. Deegan also impresses as Joe, a character who’s lost like Leigh, offering three rising stars for the price of one in Riley’s debut.
As much a film about what we don’t see than what we do, Perfect 10 is a coming-of-age story about an uncertain future; a tale about the importance of family framed around the void of absent parents. Sweeter and more soulful than you might expect it to be, it’s a love story that lingers, made real by a director with an eye for detail.
- Director: Eva Riley
- Starring: Frankie Box, Alfie Deegan, Sharlene Whyte
- Release date: August 7 (Digital)