Plots don't need to be complicated and directing doesn't need to be flashy in order for a film to be memorable or striking. A film is a collection of lots of different elements that all come together as a whole, and when all the little things are done well, you don't need to be over the top. In 'Perfect 10', first time writer and director Eva Riley approaches her film with an elegant simplicity that allows it to shine and - pardon the pun - stick the landing.
At the centre of 'Perfect 10' is young aspiring gymnast Leigh (Frankie Box), whose world is turned upside down when Joe (Alfie Deegan), the half brother she never knew she had, shows up in her life. Leigh's already fractured relationship with her dad (William Ash), as well as her standing in her gymnastics group, will all be put to the test. It's hard enough being a young girl without a mother, seeking validation and comfort in any other space she can, and when Joe offers an olive branch from which to build a relationship, Leigh is drawn to him like a magnet.
On the surface, it would appear that Joe and Leigh have little in common. Joe is part of a gang of petty motorbike thieves, whilst Leigh finds her joy in the gym - at least, she did before recently joining the much more intimidating "firsts squad". However, they find common ground in the form of their father, whose blatant disregard for his children and absence over the years provide a strong foundation for them to bond. It's exactly what Leigh needs, as Joe's presence allows Leigh to grow into a strong and confident girl, a stark contrast to the timid teen audiences meet at the start of the film. We see her transform by harnessing a vulnerability that only Joe is able to conjure, and it's an absolute delight to witness what becomes of their relationship.
This is a superbly confident and yet delicate debut from Riley. She is never afraid to let the story unfold in its own right, never forcing audiences to feel something that isn't there or distracting our attention with unnecessary detail. She crafted a tight script, but still allows ample opportunity for her actors to improvise and create the natural feel of the film. Towards the end when Leigh does a big routine, Riley films her actors with a deft touch and a closeness that reminded me of Ryan Coogler's approach to the boxing ring in 'Creed', taking the audience along for the dance with delicate choreography. It proves that not only can Riley mould an intimate portrait of a sibling relationship, but she could just as easily take a swing at a more expansive narrative. I was legitimately surprised to learn this was her first feature, and I will be watching her career trajectory with great interest.
At its heart, 'Perfect 10' is a film centred around the relationship between a brother and sister, and thankfully, both Box and Deegan completely buy into their characters, seemingly having a wonderful time in the process. This is both of their first forays into film, and in this sink-or-swim industry, there's little doubt both have everything in their armoury to swim. Credit should also go to Riley, who clearly created a safe and nurturing set for them to both explore and improvise their narrative. The conversations between the two feel so natural, almost as if they are siblings cut from the same cloth, and not only does it aid the overall atmosphere of the film, but compliments the bright and energetic Brighton setting. It feels so much grander than a point-and-shoot then seeing what happens - a testament to the careful yet understated direction throughout.
We see Leigh transform by harnessing a vulnerability that only Joe is able to conjure, and it's an absolute delight to witness what becomes of their relationship.
Riley uses a wonderful narrative device of the parents viewing window at Leigh's gym, shown so often as the empty space where Leigh's mother once stood. That void hangs over Leigh at every practice, standing as a constant reminder to Leigh and audiences alike, that the nurture and safety Leigh craves is missing presently, always lurking in the distance. However, not all is lost. The care and support that Joe offers to Leigh lets her shine - with Riley capturing the tenderness and intimacy with emotive close-ups and points of view that highlight the micro details that would otherwise be lost. Leigh is always the focus, even when Riley opts for wider shots, with her bright clothing and contagious smile a welcome contrast to the petty crime that dominates Joe's world.
Joe wants to be the father figure to Leigh he never had, and Leigh wants Joe to be the caring support she deserves. There are no major surprises or twists along the way, but the opportunity to see these two characters up close and personal is a real treat. Whether or not they achieve their wish, you'll have to wait and see. But one thing's for sure - 'Perfect 10' is a superbly confident debut from Eva Riley; I only wish it was longer.