Following an immigrant mother and daughter in Glasgow, Adura Onashile’s GIRL is a gentle and sometimes hypnotic view of a life laced with the after-effects of trauma. Although the film shows how it affects those around you, Onashile’s feature debut achieves this with its interest in the protagonists’ internal thoughts more than outward emotional clashes. Although this focus may make it more opaque than other films of similar themes, both the actors and the off-screen creative team craft an engaging story.
Grace (Déborah Lukumuena) works as a night-shift cleaner in Glasgow, with her walk to work an unsettling routine: she counts her steps and avoids engaging with people as far as possible (during these segments, the rowdy nighttime Glasgow crowds are almost shot like wildlife not to be disturbed or distracted). Grace’s daughter, Ama (Le’Shantey Bonsu), sits alone in their flat during these periods, gazing over Glasgow, yet very separate from it.
When Ama raises the alarm on a fire in their flat complex, she connects with a neighbour and fellow youngster in her school (which Grace has kept her from attending), Fiona (Liana Turner). That burgeoning connection, combined with a relocation to other accommodation, raises Grace’s anxiety further.
“From the beginning, Onashile beautifully illustrates the relationship between mother and daughter. In the initial stages, the two are rarely framed apart and are often shown in a comfortable embrace or together in bed.”
From the beginning, Onashile beautifully illustrates the relationship between mother and daughter. In the initial stages, the two are rarely framed apart and are often shown in a comfortable embrace or together in bed. An early shot focuses on their intertwined fingers and establishes both the closeness but also interdependence they share. Although Grace is presented as extremely anxious, to the point of perhaps stifling Ama, it isn’t without reason. Brief flashback interludes hint at previous traumatic experiences, and Onashile’s script also weaves in fleeting moments of racism in the present.
Once it becomes apparent Ama wants to push beyond Grace’s boundaries, this earlier work bears fruit dramatically. Ama’s growing independence – or, at least, desire to live more fully – chafes against Grace’s desire to keep to themselves and to stay safe. GIRL establishes both motivations somewhat organically, in a gentle and understated manner. Lukumuena’s performance as Grace demonstrates her anxiety and protectiveness long before any emotional outpourings. Le’Shantey Bonsu’s Ama reveals an unassuming curiosity that quietly shows how the bond might be limiting.
Visually, GIRL finds artistry in darkness; purple light draped across Ama’s face, soft light establishing the warmth between mother and daughter. Although their dark flat maybe doesn’t seem an inviting place, there is a safety Grace finds there. That inconspicuousness contrasts with the harsh fluorescent lighting of her workplace or brighter interiors of the temporary accommodation to which the pair are moved; a literal glare and spotlight emphasise the exposure of which Grace is terrified.
“That inconspicuousness contrasts with the harsh fluorescent lighting of her workplace or brighter interiors of the temporary accommodation to which the pair are moved; a literal glare and spotlight emphasise the exposure of which Grace is terrified.”
If any part of GIRL doesn’t feel as carefully crafted, it would be the approach to very brief flashback segments, which make Grace’s past trauma more visually manifest. Although these serve some purpose towards establishing the intrusive nature of her thoughts, their insertion draws attention away from Lukumuena’s performance. When GIRL achieves so much with a less-is-more approach, this element feels inorganic in a way the rest of the film does not.
GIRL highlights how difficult it is to establish trust after trauma, grow beyond your own boundaries, and take loved ones with you on that emotional journey. The film is an elegantly slow-burning drama, and its willingness to let the visuals and understated performances establish an atmosphere allows the audience to feel Grace and Ama’s emotions all the more keenly.