When fifteen year old gymnast Leigh (Frankie Box) hangs upside down on the bars, the world is stranger but easier to comprehend. Dust glitters and swirls in the sunlight, the other girls in their blue leotards drift out of focus, their chatter and laughter is hushed and distant, and they move in slow motion like they’re underwater. Instead of standing back and displaying the whole move, director Eva Riley keeps her camera close to Leigh, focusing on her hands as they dangle into the emptiness below them. The action is carved into abstract images: hands, dust, girls; as if Leigh is trying to divide her life into manageable pieces.
Gymnastics is partly an escape for Leigh. Grieving her mother and ignored by a father who might shove some cash into her hands but rarely comes home, she lives in virtual isolation in the suburbs of southern England. Only her firm but kind gymnastics teacher Gemma (Sharlene Whyte) seems to be looking out for her, but even she doesn’t seem to notice the other girls’ mocking stares and cruel comments about Leigh’s shyness and her tatty old leotard. Her life is completely upended by the abrupt arrival of an older half brother she knew nothing about, who gives her at least some of the companionship she craves but also draws her close to an underbelly of petty moped crime.
Perfect 10 is not wildly inventive in terms of its style. Riley and her cinematographer Steven Cameron Ferguson, both making their feature film debut, favour functionality over frills, and don’t attempt anything more visually radical than keeping the camera handheld and just letting the action unfold in front of our eyes, aside from the all too brief impressionistic opening. This is not the prettified social realist vision of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, though this film also takes place over a languid, stuffy summer and has its characters find moments of respite as they briefly venture into rural landscapes.
The essential plot does feel rather familiar, as Leigh craves excitement and approval from a local crime boss which conflicts with her passion for gymnastics, culminating in a potentially life-altering ultimatum. Yet for all of its formulaic elements, Perfect 10 does have a surprisingly subversive undercurrent through its depiction of Leigh’s confused sense of her own desires and struggle to understand genuinely unconditional familial love.
It’s also largely powered by the sheer power of the two central performances from Box and Alfie Deegan as her confident yet equally damaged half brother Joe. Both are newcomers and extraordinarily comfortable in front of the camera, finding a natural chemistry with each other and imbuing their respective characters with an emotional truth that transcends the limits of the script. But Box is undeniably the standout, seamlessly inhabiting the role and making all narrative contrivance fall away.
Leigh’s small stature and dark curls immediately set her apart from the tall, willowy blonde girls at the gymnastics club who tease her mercilessly, but it’s her ability to mask ingrained pain and disappointment with an antagonistic, carefree swagger that makes her so compelling to watch. Leigh’s confidence is always hanging by a thread, and Box shows vulnerability beneath her sharp edged exterior with her soulful round eyes often looking up in hope while her head tilts downwards, praying for acceptance even as she jeopardises that acceptance by pushing others away. Perfect 10 may not have landed its own perfect score, but Riley has proved herself to be adept at discovering and nurturing new talent, while her young leads deserve many more opportunities to shine.
Perfect 10 is available to watch in select cinemas and on the BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema from August 7.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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