A road movie of a very particular - dare one say, a very British - kind, Scott Graham’s sublime debut feature Shell unfolds at a petrol station in the remote Scottish Highlands. The station serves as both business and home for Pete (Joseph Mawle) and his daughter, Shell (remarkable newcomer Chloe Pirrie), who have lived there together since Shell’s mother deserted them over ten years ago. A watchful, quiet 17-year-old, Shell’s only other social interaction is with the travellers who stop off at the station for petrol or supplies on their way to elsewhere, including a young man, Adam (Iain de Caestaker), who clearly has romantic designs on her. But Shell’s primary object of fascination remains her father, for whom she appears to have developed vaguely erotic feelings. It’s a relationship characterised both by routine domesticity and a pervasive sense of unease. A pivotal early scene shows Shell dancing blissfully to the radio as she prepares their supper, then cuts to Pete observing her from outside. As soon as he enters, Shell turns the music off.
From the opening images - a bleak, wintry landscape; a deer that one just knows will get run over at some point - the viewer may experience premonitions of Brit-flick grimness at Shell. These premonitions are fulfilled, up to a point - the deer gets it, alas - but they’re also subverted. You make take issue with the way in which the film uses the possible fulfilment of a quasi-incestuous relationship to build tension, but the end result is very far from the tacky, prurient spectacle that some directors might have made of similar material. Rather, Graham’s approach is discreet but full-of-feeling. As a director, he’s as quietly observant as his heroine is, drawing the viewer into intense intimacy with all of his isolated characters as they variously attempt and avoid connections.
A superb sound design and Yoliswa Gärtig’s eloquent cinematography certainly make you feel the chill of the location. Yet the movie itself isn’t cold. Rather, it’s an indelible portrait of both the frustrations and the comforts of entrapment, of a girl’s vague desire for something more than the life she’s been offered, as those passing through bring her news and offerings from the world beyond. A concerned, sympathetic woman (Kate Dickie) gives Shell a copy of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. A lonely divorced man (Michael Smiley) buys her a pair of jeans. An unforthcoming young mother (Morven Christie) gives little away, but in a piercing, exhilarating sequence that marks a turning point in the movie Shell chases after her car as it drives into the distance, to return a doll that her daughter left behind.
Mawle and Pirrie’s performances are exquisitely judged. And Graham builds the film to a quietly redemptive conclusion that’s as perfectly pitched - and as moving and surprising - as any that I’ve seen this year. A supremely assured and marvellously controlled debut.