‘Scarborough’ (2021) Review: “A Sweet Yet Clumsy Affair”
It’s always frustrating when there is a big difference between a finished product and what it could have been. And in the case of Scarborough, that difference is quite large indeed. Somewhere in the movie is a heartwarming story about how a morning school can allow children to thrive. Even when students find themselves in tough situations, they can always rely on this safe environment to express themselves. I would love for the movie to place all its efforts into the benefits of the school setting. However, the film has more on its mind and rarely does it yield beneficial results.
Taking place over a school year, the film follows three children: Bing (Liam Diaz), Sylvie (Essence Fox), and Laura (Anna Claire Beitel). Each of their families faces a battle against one of the following: job insecurity, abuse, and neglect. Bing has to deal with his father’s mental illness and his mother’s unstable job security. In fact, he has to spend most of his free time at the nail salon where his mother currently works. As for Sylvie, she tries to keep her morale up while her mother struggles to find permanent housing. As for Laura, she gets the most direct form of pain thanks to her parents verbally and physically abusing her as possible.
That last part, unfortunately, makes up a sizable portion of Scarborough‘s bloated 136-minute runtime. It’s clear that screenwriter Catherine Hernandez – adapting her own novel – wants the audience to see how tough things can be. But the problem is that it already provides insight into Laura’s life in the first five minutes. Prior to the opening credits, we see Laura’s mother slap her as they prepare to leave the house. It would be one thing if the movie showed that one instance of abuse and stopped there. But it’s another thing to have a scene once every 10 to 15 minutes dedicated to showing Laura in pain. So on top of being triggering for sensitive audiences, it’s also redundant on a narrative level.
In general, the triptych structure largely exists to make the movie more cluttered. Since there are no less than three main storylines, it’s up to the writing to maintain a balance. However, it does not take long before some characters get preferential treatment. For a brief moment, it looks like Sylvie is the primary focus. Not only does she get to interact with more people than the others, but she also gets to aid Bing after a bullying incident. And yet, for reasons I can’t explain, Hernandez pushes her aside in favor of Laura’s father. In fact, there are at least a few scenes that have no other purpose than to show his hatred towards everyone he meets.
But here’s the thing: Scarborough has the blessing of directors who understand the potential of the material. For all the scenes that show unrelenting misery, there are just as many that excel at conveying a sense of warmth. Directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson do a stellar job at portraying intimacy between characters. While their visual approach is nothing amazing – there is a treasure trove of tight close-ups – they know how to add a soul to the right characters. Chief among them is Hina (Aliya Kanani), the teacher at the morning school. As written and as performed, Hina has a level of kindness and approachability that makes her impossible to ignore.
Quite honestly, it’s at the morning school where the film shows how love can foster from communities no matter what. Whether it involves Bing and Sylvie exchanging goofy faces or the entire class playing with a parachute, there’s a sweetness that always rings true. It helps that these scenes force the film to slow down in order to be in the moment. While it does not make the runtime any shorter, at least these represent the times in which audiences can hang out with the characters. It also benefits from having a cast of expressive child actors. Every scene with Sylvie requires a balance between maturity and wide-eyed innocence, and Fox manages to nail every emotion the script asks of her.
I very much wish that Hernandez figured out a better way to streamline her novel. Because in its current state, Scarborough is on the verge of becoming misery porn. Nevertheless, the fact it’s only on the verge speaks to Nakhai and Williamson’s visible efforts to heighten the material. Every once in a while, the film forgets about the melodrama and lets itself be uplifting. And whenever that happens, the end result is a rather sweet and moving affair. Still, there’s no reason for Scarborough to be as clumsy as it is, and that alone prevents it from being more than just alright. – Mark Tan
Scarborough‘s release date has yet to be announced.