And even though the story wobbles along the way, it's a vital, involving film.
Lucy (Windsor) is an 11-year-old living with her father (Carlyle) in Nottingham. But when a schoolteacher discovers that she has been violently beaten, she's placed in a care home, sharing a room with 16-year-old tearaway Lauren (Socha). Lauren takes Lucy on several rather illicit outings, constantly landing the pair in trouble. And when Lucy wonders why she can't live with her mother (Lynch), her social worker (Stacey) only says that it's not possible.
Surely someone somewhere must want her.
Morton's directing approach is intensely visual, using angles, colour and light to throw us into the situation from Lucy's vulnerable perspective. For example, in the opening scene when her father stands up in anger, he appears to unfold into a huge, menacing giant. And this cleverly inventive approach continues throughout the film, as we follow Lucy into an Alice-like adventure through a particularly terrifying version of Wonderland.
At the centre, Windsor is simply transparent. It's such an offhanded, natural performance that we can't help but identify with her. Through her eyes, mundane things through become glimmers of hope, and we vividly experience her prayerful longing even as we watch the emotion quietly draining from her face as the story progresses. It's a wrenching, heartbreaking performance that contrasts brilliantly with Socha's attitude-filled turn as Lauren, an equally fragile girl who copes with her situation through abrasive bravado.
Morton packs the film with tiny details, blasts of vivid humour and energy, and telling observations. Lucy's only solace is in memories of happier days with her mum and dad, and she seems to be so tiny that she's literally slipping through cracks in a system that should be taking care of her. It's this sense of urgency keeps the plot afloat through a murky third act that seems to drift aimlessly and almost become unstuck in time. Surely this is intentional; the film is far too sharply well-made for it to be an accident. But it does weaken what should be a devastating final punch.
Run time: 106 mins
In Theaters: Sunday 17th May 2009
Distributed by: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Production compaines: EM Media
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Fresh: 16 Rotten: 1
IMDB: 6.9 / 10
Director: Samantha Morton
Screenwriter: Tony Grisoni