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My Summer of Loss

The Scouting Book for Boys (2009)

The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

David (Thomas Turgoose) and Emily (Holliday Grainger) are the only staff kids in a vacation trailer park in Norfolk, the unfashionable part of England that’s the butt of every joke. David’s dad (Tony Maudsley) runs the pub, while Emily’s mother Carol (Susan Lynch) runs the convenience store. David and Emily are teenagers at that awkward stage between childishness and maturity. Emily in particular flips between flaunting her sexuality and throwing epic temper tantrums. Especially now the summer is ending, they spend all of their time together, swimming in the public pools, playing in the arcade, dreaming of adulthood. Then Emily learns Carol wants her to go live with her dad and disappears.

What happens next is a plot twist that should be kept a surprise; but as it is revealed in all of the prerelease publicity, it can be discussed in a review: Emily has run away to a cave on the cliffside coast, accessible via a tidal pool. The plan is for her to stay put long enough for her parents to change their minds about moving her away; David will visit regularly with food and other supplies, including the scouting book that provides the film’s title.

Mr. Turgoose has been the working-class beloved of British cinema since his standout role in “This Is England”; he has definitely since grown up, but remains one of the most recognizable faces in English movies. This is the first feature for both director Tom Harper and writer Jack Thorne; and it’s gained a lot of buzz for its assuredness and the beauty of the cinematography (a few shots of smoke rising from the cave into cattle pasture were especially good).

But the audience is meant to identify with David’s fear of women and his overwhelming sense of ownership towards Emily. Her incarceration in the cave is meant to be liberating, but it’s a terrible trap sold as the cost of achieving independent adulthood. Ms. Grainger does her best; but Emily is not that stupid, and neither are we. Even less believably, we’re meant to think Emily is indifferent to David’s real feelings for her. She takes him so eternally for granted that it’s ridiculous, but this is not the same thing. The search throws up rumors of Emily’s relationship with an older security guard (Rafe Spall, who has inherited his father Timothy Spall’s fearlessness in playing potentially unattractive characters), which curdle into pedophile-hunting hysteria. Ms. Lynch tries hard to make Carol into a woman forced to confront her shortcomings as a parent in the most awful possible circumstances, but her rage and grief are played for laughs.

David is meant to be shy and inarticulate, which it must be said Mr. Turgoose captures very well. Multiple characters tell him how he must be feeling as he halfheartedly participates in the search for Emily; despite Mr. Turgoose’s enormous screen presence, none of that is shown. All this would be just about bearable if the style was pitch-black satire, with the men treated as badly as the women. But Messrs. Harper and Thorne are completely serious. Perhaps Mr. Harper realized that if David demonstrated any feelings, he would be so obviously a monster as to scorch the whole film.

In the midst of this, there’s a telling little scene in which David, sulking at the pool, is approached by a bosomy young mother (Sheena Irving) who offers David the unasked-for chance to hold her infant daughter. “She likes strangers,” she chirps, as David stares into her cleavage.

This contempt for women is so pervasive as to make “The Scouting Book for Boys” an exercise in misogyny just short of torture porn. The treatment of Emily is despicable; she is held responsible for David’s choices and their consequences. David is depicted as loving though misguided, instead of a cruel, deliberately violent abuser. We’re meant to feel sorry for what his feelings for Emily drive him to. If that is love, you can keep it.

The final act is also a direct steal from Stephen King, so obviously lifted from one notorious Oscar-winning film in particular that it was shocking to see the rest of the audience shocked by it. When did filmgoing memories get so short? The most upsetting thing about this movie is that Mr. Thorne was awarded the inaugural Times BFI London Film Festival prize for best British newcomer. This movie and that award deserve nothing less than our loathing.


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