In director Tom Harper’s excellent film The Scouting Book for Boys we witness a trailer trash Romeo and Juliet endure the consequences of their own modern day fable…
The recklessness of youth, its beauty and its ugliness, is a carcass from which director Tom Harper feeds in The Scouting Book For Boys. It’s a visceral, unforgettable feast. There’s a confidence from the fledgling director who tackles his first feature film, one which boasts the simplicities of place and time, while divulging the complexities of human relationships. Here, uninhibited summer fun is the conspicuous opening beat of this unsettling journey from friendship to lust, from unrequited love to prurient anger.
Harper, best known for his TV work directing episodes of This Is England ’86 and Peaky Blinders, sets a naturalistic stage for this multi-toned drama. But there’s something beguiling perverse about it. Clearly taking inspiration from fellow British filmmaker Shane Meadows (whom he worked with on This Is England), Harper strikes an ethereal balance between shades of light and dark, helped by the hard-edged imagination of writer Jack Thorne and his intimate, small world apocalypse. Together they conspire to mix recognisable interpersonal anxieties with the idealistic fantasies of teenagers; the creeping immorality of youth misadventure a damning indictment of that presumptive privilege: innocence.
We begin at a caravan park where two mischievous teens are in playful mood. It’s the location of summer vacation for most but for David (Thomas Turgoose) and Emily (Holliday Grainger), it’s home. Their parents provide holidaymakers with their sustenance and entertainment on the site while their kids are off the leash, doing what they please. When Emily’s father wins custody of the fourteen-year-old, she decides to run away. With the help of David, who brings her food and offers intermittent company, she hides in a cave.
Meanwhile, her stricken mother (Susan Lynch looking curiously like Amy Winehouse) files a missing person report and a police investigation begins. While David holds his tongue amid the escalating scale of the teenagers’ deception, the burden falls on security guard Steve (Rafe Spall). The police believe it’s an abduction. Soon enough David begins to understand the severity of his lie. The consequences of which are unimaginable.
With the jaunty folk tunes of Noah and the Whale providing the soundtrack you’d be forgiven for thinking The Scouting Book For Boys will inevitably reset the panic button, discarding the dirt and grime of its darkest moments in favour of cathartic redemption. But dig deeper, Charlie Fink’s emotive lyrics suggesting an otherness to proceedings, and you realise Harper has no intention of protecting us from this can of worms. The shit-storm is here. And it’s staying put.
David and Emily are like brother and sister; he even says that during a police press conference. But truth is not a commodity David is used to, at least in the time we know him. There’s a searing sexual desire within him, one that sizzles behind closed doors; adolescent longing lying dormant and unreciprocated. While their relationship is platonic, his virginal craving is the unsatiated counterpoint to Emily’s self-assured maturity. This is the fuel that creates the fire. A fire that becomes impossible to put out.
Principally, the chemistry between Turgoose and Grainger holds everything together, each displaying an instinctive tenderness that is perhaps indicative of their professional inexperience. It works well here. As does their un-Hollywood ordinariness. If Harper fluffs his lines when it comes to police procedure and the ensuing paedophile witch-hunt which becomes a caricatured rabble, he’s restrained in the face of his young, star-crossed lovers. It is here where this trailer trash Romeo and Juliet must endure the consequences of their own modern day fable.