Unique Girl Coming of Age Endures Hokey Drama in 'Broken'

Directed by: Rufus Norris; Runtime: 91 minutes
Grade: C+

In Rufus Norris' bluntly titled Broken, adapted from Daniel's Clay's highly-regarded novel, the story of a severely diabetic pre-teen girl, Skunk (Eloise Laurence), takes us through the happenings of an ordinary British cul-de-sac, the setting for a domino effect of wavering innocence and false accusations. All it takes is some flippant finger-pointing from a nasty teenage girl across the way and the response from her hot-headed, grieving father (Rory Kinnear) to knock the first tile down, leading to a brutal attack that unfolds right before Skunk's eyes, traumatizing both her and the victim of the attack. Norris' film shows what happens after she witnesses the attack, from her maturing rapport with her lawyer father, Archie (Tim Roth), and her adaptation to a new grade level to the assorted romantic relationships that blossom and crumble around her. Despite being well-made and well-performed, Broken doesn't really know what to do with the collage of themes it presents, though, offering slices of disrupted life that can't quite line up with one another.

Director Norris' visual and editorial aesthetic resembles the likes of Danny Boyle's work, lingering over Skunk's shoulder while alternating between lively footage of her in-town travels -- complete with playful music and sound effects -- and steady, sobering shots of the things she witnesses. As a result, Broken adopts both humor and gritty drama that discordantly mingle with one another, coexisting in an atypical but initially absorbing blend of bright and stark tones while painting a picture of the girl's life. The components in Skunk's coming-of-age story draw one's attention: the relationship between the family's nanny, Kasia (Zana Marjanovic), and her long-term teacher boyfriend, Mike (Cilian Murphy), who might be instructing at Skunk's new school; her clumsy dating with a slightly-older first boyfriend; and how she handles the bullying and newcomer hazing at her school from her snappish curly-haired neighbor. Her story is juxtaposed with a look at the victim of the film's initial beating, Rick (Robert Emms), namely his mental duress and the sympathy Skunk feels for him.

The individual parts in Broken end up being better than the sum, however. Each piece of Skunk's puzzle of experience -- the harassment at a new school, the boyfriend, her crush on Mike, her fluctuating relationship with her father, her friendship with the mentally unhinged neighbor -- provokes reserved yet effective emotional responses around her perception of the complicated shifts in her life, things that'll shape the context of how she observes people going forward. Her coming-of-age story also fights to coexist with themes involving false accusations and witch hunts, though, deriving clear influence from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird in its depiction of Skunk's fiery neighbors and their quickness to blame and lash out. Despite Norris' craftsmanship giving each part its own weight, there are too many intense sensations and not enough to glue them together into a cohesive outlook on impacting Skunk and those around her, tiptoeing the line between subtlety and ineffectiveness while trying to convey a concrete point.

Broken comes close to rising above its cluttered purpose with an excellent host of performances, namely from Eloise Laurence as Skunk. Sure, Tim Roth's magnetic, stern demeanor nails the desired father figure inside Archie, while Cilian Murphy turns in a sharp under-the-radar performance as Mike, a devoted and charming teacher who's forced to handle curveballs thrown his way. Robert Emms is also easy to appreciate as the deer-in-headlights victim of a senseless beating, who descends into a troubled psychological state. But it's Laurence's natural reactions to the events around her that give the film its core, from awkward conversations with her new boyfriend to her haunting responses to traumatic events. There's a respectable authenticity in Skunk's growth as an individual, a marriage of acting talent and Norris' self-aware direction, that becomes absorbing as she observes life's hiccups: breakups, beatdowns, and other surprises that send her headlong into the world of quickly growing up. When the script meanders, Laurence keeps her afloat.

Instead of Skunk's experiences focusing into an interlocking drama with a clear viewpoint near the end, Broken instead dials up the coincidences and surprises in order to leave a stronger melodramatic imprint, while in the process clouding its commentary on impressionability and false accusations. Unnecessary, arguably aimless bluster send Norris' film through a brutal and bleak gauntlet at the end, hinged more on the poor decisions people make instead of fleshing out its themes, piling up convenience after convenience with lapses in common sense. Frustratingly, it all leads to a well-performed but unpersuasive climax featuring a surreal setting, without saying much beyond the fact that Skunk's got the fight for living that'll overcome any challenges thrown her way in the future. It's unfortunate to see a compelling character such as her caught up in such a brazen last act that doubles down on the film's title, once again making her a victim of circumstance and compassion.

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