Charlotte Regan’s directorial debut, “Scrapper,” opens with the well-known proverb “it takes a village to raise a child.” These words are suddenly scratched off the screen, replaced by a handwritten “no thanks, I can take care of myself.”
Next, we meet 12-year-old Georgie (Lola Campbell) as she prepares for her day. She makes breakfast, handles the laundry, and does other chores. She appears to be a latchkey kid living in a London flat, dutifully executing a daily routine while her parents are out at work.
In reality, she’s been living alone since the death of her single mother, who raised her.
On the wall is a list of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance); Georgie crosses out the third item, just as she crossed out those words on the film’s opening screen. Her best friend from across the way, Ali (Alin Uzun), asks her how she’s progressing.
To outwit the social services employee who would put her in foster care, Georgie convinces a local convenience store clerk to record certain phrases into her phone. She plays these recordings during her weekly check-in calls, telling the social worker that it’s her “Uncle Winston Churchill.” The phrases don’t always sync up with the conversation at hand, but they work well enough.
For money, Georgie and Ali steal bicycles and sell them to some kind of bike chop shop. Ali often stays over as well, with his mother thinking good old Uncle Winston will keep the kids in line.
Very few people know that Georgie has no adult supervision, but that situation is about to change. Out of the blue, a man climbs over the backyard wall of Georgie’s flat. He’s Jason (Harris Dickinson from “Triangle of Sadness”), a baby-faced blond with a penchant for wearing track suits. One character says his bleached haircut makes him look like Eminem’s B-Rabbit from “8 Mile.”
Jason tells Georgie that he heard about her mother’s death — and that he’s her long-lost dad.
Georgie will have none of it. She’s done just fine fending for herself, and her mother did her best to raise her without Jason. He is an extraneous latecomer whose services are no longer required. Unfortunately, he proves nearly impossible to get rid of, outfoxing every effort put forth by his daughter. In the rare moment when Georgie has the upper hand, he threatens to call social services.
In these early passages, the parent-child dynamic feels reversed; Georgie is strict and rational while Jason is petulant. She is as surprised as we are when her dad advises her on how to scrape serial numbers off the bikes before she sells them. Isn’t he supposed to be admonishing her? These scenes are funny enough to stave off any viewer concern.
If Jason’s presence alone weren’t enough to irritate Georgie, Ali has taken a shine to him. “Scrapper” treads lightly here, implying that Ali sees a combination of father figure and best mate. Since Georgie has always assumed the role of Ali’s BFF, Jason’s new role gets under her skin.
Regan (who also wrote the screenplay) is crafting a fable, as evidenced by the bright, gauzy cinematography by Molly Manning Walker, who lights every scene with a bit of a heavenly glow. “Scrapper” also has scenes of onscreen commentary from other characters who serve as the film’s Greek chorus-slash-snark factor. The gaggle of neighborhood mean girls who make snide comments about Georgie is a highlight.
Campbell is a revelation. This is her first movie role, and her performance is flawless. Georgie is complicated: an old soul wise beyond her years, yet yearning to just be a kid. Dickinson’s prickly but sensitive performance brings out the best in the two child actors.
But “Scrapper” is not a precocious, twee tale. There’s some bite here that keeps it from becoming saccharine. The Brits do this kind of comedy better than American filmmakers because they are less afraid to incorporate the darkness of a harsher reality into their lighthearted tales. Think about “Billy Elliot,” “The Full Monty,” or 2014′s “Pride.” Joy and pain exist in tandem, just like in life.
Most coming-of-age tales chart a course from childhood to maturity. “Scrapper” flips the premise, allowing a kid who grew up too fast the luxury of slowing down to savor childhood.
Written and directed by Charlotte Regan. Starring Lola Campbell, Harris Dickinson, Alin Uzun. 84 minutes. At the Brattle. Unrated (salty language, sweet emotions)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.