Review: Girl

Written and directed by Adura Onashile, the curious relationship between a girl and her mother is threatened by the hostile community around them. Starring: Déborah Lukumuena, Le’Shantey Bonsu, Danny Sapani, and Kai Bruce.

For how big a part of history and modern society immigration is, it’s not a subject that’s often explored in film or if it is, it tends not to take the lead. Whereas Girl dives right in and not only is it exploring the immigrant experience but it’s a moving portrayal of trauma. Adura Onashile’s writing is subtle yet powerful, especially in how it captures the key theme of safety that flows through the film. Grace (Déborah Lukumuena) is haunted by her past, so no matter that she now lives in a comfortable environment, she can’t simply leave those experiences behind, impacting every single day, her relationship with her daughter Ama (Le’Shantey Bonsu) and every person she comes into contact with. It creates this fascinating ripple effect, a push and pull with her daughter as she struggles to move forward with her past trauma weighing her down and warping her perspective. Whereas Ama keeps trying to convince her mother to embrace the everyday experience, to relinquish her extremely protective nature.

That struggle is then brought to life beautifully by the performances from Déborah Lukumuena and Le’Shantey Bonsu. Lukumuena is a hugely underappreciated talent, she has a wonderful range and exceptional presence. Even just comparing her performance in Robust to this one, they’re polar opposites and she achieves both with an impressive level of emotion. With Girl she brings such an intense vulnerability, keenly showing how the pain impacts every aspect of Grace’s daily life. As well as how constantly refusing the help of others out of mistrust, makes the weight of that trauma even heavier. Bonsu’s performance is the counterbalance, she creates this quiet but strong girl who just wants to live life, she wants to stop hiding and live like everyone else. At the same time she shows such a love for her mother, she may want to rebel but she has the emotional maturity to be aware of her mother’s struggle. It’s a messy relationship but the connection beneath the chaos is sweet and strong.

Adura Onashile makes her feature debut with Girl and does so with a sincere confidence. Granted it has a few teething issues, the editing can be a bit harsh and the progression isn’t always smooth but outside of that, it’s extremely well done. As soon as it opens, and all throughout, it provides a genuinely intriguing atmosphere that feels somehow familiar and entirely new. It translates the pain and trauma with its tone and presence, as well as through Lukumuena’s performance. It has a personality to how it moves and its use of colour, as well as the fractured moments of memories that accent Grace’s past. It builds a heart-breaking atmosphere, presenting just how vulnerable she is and how constantly afraid she feels, unable to escape the horrors of her past no matter how far away she may be. It captures the survival mode that she finds herself in to deal with how she feels, closing off and keeping things as contained as physically possible. Which is what makes it even more satisfying in the few moments that she gets to let go of her fear.

Girl is one of the rare occasions where you wish a film was longer, the characters are compelling, the emotion is plentiful and sincere, and it’s a subject that deserves a bigger discussion. Déborah Lukumuena is worthy of so much more attention than she receives and this performance is just even more proof of that. Her portrayal is overflowing with emotion, it’s intense and fragile but fiercely protective. If this is what Adura Onashile can achieve with her first outing, it’s going to be very interesting to see what she does for her sophomore feature.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯ | 8/10

Girl celebrated its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2023 and is soon to be the Opening Night film of the Glasgow Film Festival on March 1

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