Dir: Rishi Pelham
Dancing on the Edge
Hilda sets its stall out immediately. A brief pre-title sequence sees a young woman lost in movement among the neon lights of a dingy club. It’s pumping, colourfully abstract, but the scene culminates in a primal scream of frustration. It’s an attention-grabbing, neatly packaged summation of the themes that this film threads together. Hilda (Megan Purvis) is the eldest of two siblings, due to become three at any moment. In the opening act, we’re speeding to hospital with the family for mum to give birth. But the stress of the circumstance sees her parents descend into a screaming street row, which is only ended by police intervention. It’s clear this newborn will put their strained, verbally abusive relationship under even more pressure.
From such a volatile home life, Hilda’s escape is dancing, for which she has innate talent. It’s her way of shutting out the harshness of reality, whether it’s practicing a routine at home, or being selected to perform in her school’s end-of-year show. She goes down a storm, and is just starting to attract the interest of elders sensing her potential. But when her parents reach breaking point, she’s left bringing up baby, as well as her precocious pre-teen sister.
The spirit of the movie feels fresh. It is part gritty Brit-drama, part contemporary dance showcase, creating a striking culture clash. It has the confidence to spend time exhibiting the dance performance when other productions would have cut away to hurriedly get back to the next plot point. Whether these routines pierce the dramatic tension is up to the viewer, for this is where its originality lies. These choreographed sequences are well conceived, often highly atmospheric, and you enjoy the liberation they offer, just as Hilda craves it. In accordance, the soundtrack, and the variety within it, is one of the production’s strongest hands, be it driving techno, syncopated offbeat jazz, or grinding street-funk.
Yet the reality is that our protagonist is in a desperate situation, and the film pulls no punches, with some scenes feeling distressingly near-the-knuckle. Purvis shines in the central role (both as actress and dancer), but the cast is strong throughout. With its kitchen-sink, realist aesthetic, the dialogue is occasionally a touch mumbled, but it feels authentic, and works within the whole. Life, and certainly Hilda’s, is messy, to say the very least. If it sometimes feels a little histrionic, with a few poignantly nasty moments, the fact is you can’t do justice to such an emotional subject by tiptoeing around it.
In a key scene, she reflects on Larkin’s ‘This Be The Verse’ with a friend. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not want to, but they do…” More importantly than examining this, it’s celebrating the human spirit trying to overcome those inherited shortcomings with creativity. Many of us have felt the need to escape, and with its compellingly original juxtaposition of story and movement, Hilda choreographs this rather affectingly.
★ ★ ★ ½