“The walls will be pink, gold. The cupboards will be white, soft like clouds. And when we walk on it, it will be like we are in the sky.” The opening lines of Adura Onashile’s Girl echo similarly idyllic sentiments fuelling immigrant dreams for their new life. But as has been proven many times before, the immigrant experience doesn’t often live up to expectations. Such is the dilemma facing protagonist Grace (Déborah Lukumuena) and her daughter Ama (Le’Shantey Bonsu) in this modest debut feature about family and trauma.
That mother-daughter relationship is the foundation of Onashile’s script, which is set in Glasgow, Scotland. The pair spend much of their time in their council estate home, living by a pact to keep to themselves. Grace is struggling to fully escape her past, preventing her from focusing at her janitorial job and causing her to be overprotective of her daughter. But the 11-year old Ama is fascinated by the world outside their apartment, which threatens to cause a rift between her and her troubled mother.
Onashile builds those tensions slowly, infusing its realism with a storybook-like quality where the apartment building is bathed in neon purple lighting and the dialogue is simple but pointed, epitomized in Grace’s recurring bedtime stories and her declaration that “I will keep you safe, always.” But the tone shifts as Ama makes friends with her schoolmate/neighbor and begins to experience the various firsts of puberty. Indeed, as Ama comes of age, we see familiar scenes of exploration as the lilting strings of the score make way for a more up-tempo pop soundtrack.
The diverging narratives of the central characters ignites a conflict, but the film feels too tentative to capitalize on the underlying tensions. Apart from the vague flashbacks and a counting tick that hints at mental trauma, the audience is kept at a distance from Grace’s character. Lukumuena’s palpably worried disposition fills in some of the blanks, but the script doesn’t allow her to truly dig deep. Both the character and the filmmaking itself avoids some tough conversations.
Still, the subtlety does speak honestly to particular traits of self-preservation and resilience. Namely, the importance of community – as conveyed through several concerned supporting characters – and our instinctive compartmentalization of trauma. Though it may not make for the most satisfying viewing, there’s a relatability in Grace’s suppressive coping mechanisms. Late in the film, she reassures her daughter, “We will be fine.” Considering its humble ambitions, this subtle film is fine too.