The coming-of-age story peddles a simple mythology: that we will open our eyes, at one magic moment, and embrace an adult consciousness that forever allows us to correctly process and understand the world’s vast stimuli. We may still have problems, but our self-doubt will have permanently receded. Superficially, this is an understandably comforting fantasy, but there’s a disturbing implication to most coming-of-age tales: that mental stasis is the desired state of mind; that growth, rather than a continual process, is a chore to be gotten over with as quickly as possible. The only real coming of age a person can reach, of course, is the recognition that such a principle as routinely understood doesn’t exist.
Broken may problematically handle the social maladjustment of a mentally limited character, but it’s the rare coming-of-age narrative that respects the tricky ambiguities of shifting perceptions. Director Rufus Norris and screenwriter Mark O’Rowe, adapting the novel by Daniel Clay, lean heavily on To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as a number of other novels and movies dealing in similar subject matter, but they refuse to limit the focus of our empathy to the mindset of their main character, a girl rapidly approaching adolescence nicknamed Skunk (Eloise Laurence).
In the tradition of Scout Finch, Skunk is a sharp, precocious little tomboy who possesses powers of observation that are beyond her years and experience, which means that she’s capable of discerning truths that she doesn’t quite know how to handle. Two of the families living near Skunk and her family in a traditional British suburb are extremely troubled. There’s Mr. and Mrs. Buckley (Denis Lawson and Clare Burt) and their son Rick (Robert Emms), a young man with limitations that render him childlike, and there’s Mr. Oswald (Rory Kinnear), a volatile bully raising a crew of vindictive fiery-haired teenage girls who he guards with unquestioning ferocity. These families release each other’s respective buried tensions in fashions that are expected but disturbing nevertheless, and Skunk finds herself stuck in the figurative and literal crossfire.
Broken refreshingly allows us to understand, without judgment, the fallacy of Skunk’s childishly reductive characterizations of the people in her life, which also include her father, Alfie (a touching and elegantly ruffled Tim Roth), and her teacher, Mike (Cillian Murphy). Skunk is still mired in broad notions of good and bad, but we see these adults wrestling to shield their children from the chaos of everyday life, struggling to fashion an effective shield for their children that will hopefully last a few more years. Mr. Oswald and his girls are the film’s most unpleasant characters, but we also see their longing and heartbreak, and they’re never less than human.
Norris also displays a keen visual sense of mystery and sensuality, compressing images in brief montages to suggest episodes that are slipping by before the characters can properly understand them. (He appears to have been influenced by the films of Shane Meadows.) Broken eventually succumbs to routine, and I’ll be happy if I never see another film that treats mental illness, however tastefully, as fodder for another character’s maturation again, but it’s still a haunting, unexpectedly ambitious gem.