Now, separated from last year’s flock but imbued with the same romantic-wet-weekend aura as An Education, and the harsh this-is-how-it-is reality of Fish Tank, comes The Scouting Book For Boys. Yes, really: there’s a film bearing the same title as that invaluable (yet decidedly uncinematic) tome that helps young lads navigate their way through the unruly wilds of nature.
Aha, there’s a penny somewhere, and it’s just dropped. So it’s metaphors we’re talking about here? You got it. Drawing on dismal caravan park culture and budget British holidays in Devon, director Tom Harper is more interested in plotting a course through the cumbersome growing spasms of his young leads than watching them make a tent out of mud, twigs and glow worm spit.
Carefully sidestepping Loach-Leigh realism, Harper expands on his youth-in-revolt Cherries short with the story of 14-year-olds David (This Is England’s Thomas Turgoose) and Emily (Holly Grainger). They describe themselves as “chosen brother and sister”, and are never apart. David is quiet and slightly gormless – “Captain Serious” the flighty, flirty Emily calls him.
At the holiday camp where they live, David’s father is an embarrassing crooner, while Emily’s mother is Amy Winehouse-channelling drunk shopkeeper Susan Lynch. When Emily discovers she’s being sent away to live with her father, she and David hatch a plan for her to run away. But things spiral out of control as the search led by local authorities and local people escalates.
Though many of the characters in Scouting Book fumble in the dark, beset and beleaguered by their own confusion/vices/secrets, Harper has a confident and firm grip on the film’s many disparate parts. Instilling the yarn with oh-so-slightly off-centre, distorted imagery, he gives voice to the quiet changes taking place behind almost-man Turgoose’s unreadable eyes.
The subtle shifts between boyhood, adolescence and beyond simmer in blinding, chlorine-addled sunlight and skulk in the shadows of the brief nighttime hours. Trading off the despondency, Skins writer Jack Thorne ensures the script is packed with laugh-out-loud zingers. “Here’s James Bond, the cunt who shagged me,” spits Lynch’s bitter mother, recipient of all the best lines. “Red rag day, is it?” is another highlight of her booze-bothered vernacular.
In the end, Scouting Book is a surprise delight, flawlessly cast and nimbly weathering its complex themes. Oh, and the original tome? It’s in all of one scene.
Anticipation: Confused, basically. But, my, hasn’t Turgoose grown? 2
Enjoyment: Dirty nails fumbling for affection, sunny visuals undercut by mournful indie music. Not what we were expecting. It’s much, much better. 4
In Retrospect: Cranking up the tension like a jack-in-the-box, Scouting Book is no botched DIY effort. Funny, brilliantly observed and unexpectedly heart-rending. 4