The sad truth about a lot of London-set films is that they fail to do the big smoke justice. The past two decades have seen a rise in stories that portray London from the ground-up, shunning the fancy restaurants, glitz and glamour in favour of real stories about almost-real people. A Brixton Tale is the latest in this canon, following the likes of last year’s County Lines and Blue Story before it in telling a story that’s ostensibly about British crime, but encompasses so much more.
The film follows Benji (Ola Orebiyi), a Brixton youth whose life becomes intertwined with upper-class filmmaker Leah (Lily Newmark) after she films him and friend Archie (Craige Middleburg) going about their lives. She begins filming an amateur documentary about Benji’s life as a Black youth in London, from racial profiling by police to the fervour of adolescent house parties. Yet her intentions are muddy, and as her and Benji grow closer, the ethics behind her motivations come to a boiling point that leads to even more sinister events.
Perhaps the biggest strength of A Brixton Tale is just how unique and revolutionary its ideas are. Sure, we’ve seen films about London teens trying to toe the line between fun and survival, but the way this film contemporises these ideas is nothing short of brilliant. Directors Darragh Carey and Bertrand Desrochers have so much to say with the film, from the middle-class appropriation of working-class culture to the ethics of this slice-of-life type of documentary filmmaking, and the extent to which the power imbalances can be exploitative. It’s subject matter that you truly won’t see in any other film, and despite the marketing focusing on a ‘YouTuber-meets-social-media’ type thesis, A Brixton Tale really couldn’t be further than that. At its core, it’s a critique of how white British culture itemises and almost fetishises those with less fortune, using their lives and experiences as nothing more than entertainment.
Yet the second half of A Brixton Tale takes an entirely different turn – and without getting into spoilers, covers topics as cutting as revenge porn and mental health. It’s a bold undertaking to effectively function as an epilogue to the drama shown in the first half—one that doesn’t always come off—but this second half is immensely watchable for a different reason. It’s here where the performances of the three leads really shimmer, capturing vulnerability, helplessness, and a really raw sheen of adolescent fear.
A film like this is more than just another London story, though. Writers Carey, Rupert Baynham and Chi Mai craft three leads brimming with personality and nuance, from Benji’s unceasing sense of duty to Archie’s abandonment. None of them are perfect—least of all Leah, who the film makes clear is worthy of our scorn—but it’s these performances that imbue such complex people with a true sense of life.
While the bridge between first and second half may be a little stilted, A Brixton Tale rarely puts a foot wrong during its brisk 75-minute runtime. It covers such nuanced subject matter in a way that’s engaging, immensely watchable, and ultimately very, very sad. There aren’t many contemporary British films that nail gravitas and emotion with such skill, and while it may not get the recognition it deserves, it earns its place among the most impactful films to come out of this country in a long while.