Promising and compassionate debut from British director Joe Stephenson
There is a great deal to admire in Chicken, a touching, assured first feature from director Joe Stephenson. He stamps a cinematic feel on the adaptation of Freddie Machin’s stage play and secures memorable performances from his young cast, especially Scott Chambers as the vulnerable Richard.
There is something of a role reversal Of Mice and Men to Chicken as tall, quick-tempered Polly (Morgan Watkins) looks out for his younger brother Richard, a teenager with unspecified learning difficulties. Extreme close-ups emphasise Polly’s physical presence and dominance. It is clear that the lonely, eternally cheerful Richard both adores and fears his brother. Polly feels duty-bound to care for Richard but the burden of that obligation frequently provokes violence and abuse.
Cinematographer Eben Bolter captures a lyrical sense of a lazy, hazy English summer. Richard and Polly live in a caravan in the heart of the countryside and Richard’s imagination transforms a dribble of a stream into a raging river and the local woods into a magical forest complete with baby tigers. Richard’s best friend is a chicken called Fiona and he retains an ability to make the best of a wretched, precarious existence.
Chambers is astonishingly good at capturing the many aspects of Richard, from his unexpected humour to his puppy-dog loyalty and constant sense of anxiety that he might lose the only human connection that he has. His friendship with bored teenager Annabell (Submarine’s Yasmin Paige) becomes a catalyst for change.
In its early stages, Chicken feels slight and a little too precious for its own good, while Richard’s initial encounters with marooned, moody city slicker Annabell feel contrived. As the story develops, however, you grow to care about the characters and appreciate the film’s warm wit and compassion. It is a very promising British debut.
Limited release from Fri 20 May.