January 31, 2024
WRITTEN BY: KATIE
The British independent film scene has been facing its fair share of challenges in recent years, for reasons that are both unique to the UK and shared across the global industry. From the uncertainties arising from the use of AI and the lasting impacts of the pandemic to the dominance of Hollywood blockbusters and U.S. streamers, there has never been a harder time for independent and low-budget film to compete with studio-backed productions.
Whilst the UK is a major destination for overseas productions and one of the leading cinema markets worldwide, its own independent sector is neglected. Recent times have seen gaps in funding following Brexit, a huge decrease in private investments, soaring production costs, growing difficulty surrounding distribution, and toughening competition because of streamers, resulting in an increasingly risk-averse approach to film-making.
This is worrisome, considering that the independent industry is pivotal in elevating up-and-coming talent, promoting innovation, allowing filmmakers to take risks, and sharing diverse stories and characters.
On a more personal note, though, as a Brit, these types of films aren't only relatable to me in terms of the accents and locations, but also because of the culture and experiences they represent. Britain is an incredibly diverse place, and because I've lived in London, the Midlands, and the South Coast, I love seeing all the different regional accents and characteristics on the screen, from small seaside towns to estates in East London.
What’s more, they utilise realism in a way that has always been distinctive to British films, confronting the viewer with the realities of the characters, which has always drawn me into the story and emotionally engaged me in ways no other films can. But, it's not all doom and gloom, they also have a unique way of combining often dry and sarcastic comedy with darker subject matters, highlighting the bright side of life no matter how bad things get.
So, with all that said, I would like to take the opportunity to highlight some of my favourite independent and low-budget British films of recent years, and shed a bit of light on the individual circumstances and unique elements that make them exceptional. These films would not exist without the tenacity, creative freedom, and opportunity offered by independent filmmaking, with many of them being debut works from talented directors, and all of them telling stories that would struggle to find a home in mainstream cinema.
DAYS OF THE BAGNOLD SUMMER (2020)
Simon Bird’s charming adaptation of Joff Winterhart's acclaimed graphic novel is a poignant coming-of-age dramedy about 15-year-old Daniel Bagnold (Earl Cave) and his mother, Sue (Monica Dolan). After Daniel’s father cancels a highly anticipated trip to visit him and his new partner in Florida, Daniel is forced to spend the summer stuck in the English suburbs, spending his time going to cafes and walking around shabby seaside towns with his mother.
The film, which is Bird’s debut feature, is a very low budget production, and Bird has commented that raising the money was extremely difficult, with the constant risk of funding falling through impacting the production. Nonetheless, Bird embraced the spirit of independent filmmaking, saying that he did not approach the story in terms of “appealing to the masses” but wanting to be true to the script and the source material. The result is one of my favourite comfort films, a sweetly intimate tale about two lonely people that captures the beauty in the ordinary and mundane, using creative cinematography, composition, and vibrant colour to show the characters’ emotional journey. A soundtrack by indie band Belle and Sebastian, featuring both vintage and original songs, adds to the endearing and melancholy tone and further elevates the film.
SAINT MAUD (2019)
Rose Glass’s debut feature, Saint Maud, is a chilling psychological horror film that follows Maud (Morfydd Clark), a recent Catholic convert and private palliative care nurse. After Maud takes a job as a carer for a terminally ill woman, she feels it is her divine mission to steer her away from temptation and ultimately save her soul.
Horror and religion are a thematic pairing that I always find interesting, and I especially love how the film explores Maud’s relationship with God through physicality, pain, and pleasure, using body horror and close-ups to sustain a tense, sinister atmosphere that never lets up. It forces the viewer to understand this deeply isolated character and her bewildering motivations. Glass’ exploration of Maud’s interior experience, as well as the exterior perception of her, is infused with a constant sense that she could do something unexpected and unhinged at any moment, all of which is driven by a dedicated performance from Clark.
Although Saint Maud was eventually acquired for distribution by A24 and found somewhat mainstream success, Glass relied on limited funding, restricted budgets, and a small cast to create her film. In fact, she worked side jobs to support herself whilst working on the project. Making the best of the tools at her disposal, the film benefits from the naturalistic lighting, small interior sets, and intimate cast. On the whole, Maud’s engrossing personal journey, the poignant religious themes, and Glass’ confident direction solidify Saint Maud as one of my favourite horror films of recent years.
Sarah Gavron’s Rocks is a deeply affecting coming-of-age drama about Shola, also known as Rocks, a 15-year-old East Londoner played by the youngest BAFTA Rising Star Award recipient, Bukky Bakray. Rocks comes home from school one day to find an apologetic note from her mother, who has abandoned her during a depressive episode, leaving her to fend for herself and her younger brother. Doing everything possible to avoid being taken into care, Rocks struggles to hold everything together.
The production of the film was a grass-roots, collaborative effort. Gavron scouted young, first-time actors from London schools before the script had even been written, and then developed the story in collaboration with the young actors, taking inspiration from their lives and experiences. Much of the dialogue is improvised, and the director filmed in a documentary-style that captures a distinct sense of authenticity and realism. Gavron also set out to create a female-driven set, hiring a crew made up of 75% women, a feat which could only be accomplished in this unique independent context.
Despite the difficult circumstances that the film explores, Rocks is an energetic, vibrant, and joyous tale of resilience, and one of the most authentic films I’ve seen about British teenagers. The documentary-style realism and ad-lib dialogue make me feel like I’ve seen these girls walking past me on the street countless times, and the characters feel so lived-in that it’s easy to forget they’re fictional.
Writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond's debut feature Censor is a striking psychological horror film that follows Enid (Niamh Algar), a diligent young woman working for the British Board of Film Classification in 1985, the peak of the “video nasty” craze. Enid spends her days watching explicit and excessive content, and when a film she views reminds her of details of her younger sister’s disappearance years before, she embarks on a mission to find the answers she needs.
Censor is an incredibly accomplished debut feature that is engaging from beginning to end. One of the reasons I love it so much is its unique visual style. Shot on 35mm film, with some use of Super8 and VHS footage, Censor has a distinctive texture that looks of the time and further draws the viewer into the world that the movie is creating, using shifting aspect ratios to represent Enid’s perception of her reality. The set design is outstanding, especially considering its budget of only £1.6 million, with stunning uses of colour, chiaroscuro-style lighting, and dizzying visuals.
BRIAN AND CHARLES (2023)
Jim Archer’s feature debut, Brian and Charles, is adapted from David Earl and Chris Hayward’s 2017 short film of the same name, which was preceded by a radio show and live stand-up act. The film follows Brian, played by co-writer David Earl, a lonely inventor who lives in a remote Welsh cottage. Brian creates a robotic companion made of cardboard and an old washing machine, named Charles.
The film cleverly leans into the absurdist, logic-defying nature of Charles’ existence, focusing on the meaningful companionship that Brian derives from Charles’ presence. The low-budget production constraints actually lend itself to the film’s unique, home-made vibe.
The film is equally as funny as it is heart-warming, exploring authentic human connection and loneliness whilst delivering fantastic physical comedy and oddball charm. The humour is distinctly British, with hilarious mockumentary-style monologues, deadpan dialogue, and an optimistic sensibility. For me, Brian and Charles feels like if a film was a hug, with undeniable, quirky British charm and characters that are hard not to love.
Charlotte Regan’s debut feature Scrapper tells the story of 12-year-old Georgie, played by first-time actor Lola Campbell, who lives on an east London estate. After her mother passes away, Georgie lies to her school and social services to say that her uncle is caring for her, then continues to secretly live in the flat on her own. She makes money by stealing bikes to sell for parts. When her estranged father Jason (Harris Dickinson) suddenly arrives, he struggles to act like a father, and Georgie refuses to accept him as one.
At the heart of this uplifting-yet-touching film is the steadily evolving dynamic between Georgie and Jason that feels very authentic and natural. The pair have fantastic chemistry, and the film is at its best when simply watching them hanging out and trying to understand each other.
There is a tendency in social-realist films about the British working class, especially when they focus on kids on council estates, to represent them as bleak, dark, and dangerous places devoid of happiness or vibrancy. Regan completely subverts this idea in an admirable way, imbuing the estate that Georgie calls home with dreamy pastel colour and a sense of loving community, highlighting the joy that can be found there. Sometimes the film does away with realism altogether, with cartoonish cutaways, jump cuts, video game visuals, and even talking spiders, but that enables the film to retain its youthful energy despite its heavy emotional themes.
Photo Credits: Photo 1 - Stigma Films; Photo 2 - A24; Photo 3 - Altitude; Photo 4 - Vertigo Releasing; Photo 5 - Focus Features; Photo 6 - Picturehouse Entertainment