Littered with solid performances and adventurous photography, Chicken, this visually stunning debut from Joe A. Stephenson marks the beginning of a promising career.
Chicken tells the story of brothers Richard (Scott Chambers) and Polly (Morgan Watkins), who live an isolated existence in a caravan. Richard has a learning difficulty which Polly struggles to cope with, and Polly vents his frustration by drinking heavily, and being physically and verbally abusive. Richard’s escape comes in the form of his pet chicken Fiona, with whom enjoys a friendship of sorts, talking to her at length, and generally treating her as a confidante.
The performance of lead actor Scott Chambers may well be the best this year. His beautiful innocence and natural warmth is instantly appealing, and particularly in early scenes, Richard’s ability to fully immerse himself in his fantasy world in order to escape brutal reality is comforting. Then by chance, Richard meets Annabelle (Yasmin Paige), a young girl whose family owns the land that his caravan is placed on. For reasons that are not particularly obvious, Annabelle decides to spend time with Richard. Sadly, this is where the film starts to lose its way.
The relationship between Annabelle and Richard is somewhat troubling. Annabelle initially seems to enjoy being cruel to Richard, and has no obvious motive for behaving in such a way, other than the fact she is slightly bored. Her cruelty, whilst mild compared to the abuse Richard suffers at the hands of Polly is not explored in any detail. Her ability for any sort of compassion is only revealed once she becomes more aware of the situation that Richard is in, but when her initial spitefulness is still unexplained, she’s not likeable enough for the viewer to be able to cut her any slack.
By comparison, Stephenson takes care to thoroughly contextualise Polly’s violence, so it’s frustrating that Annabelle is not afforded the same.
In fact, throughout the film it isn’t exactly clear what conclusions are meant to be drawn from the story. Whilst there is a resolution of sorts, for the trauma that Richard suffers, it is, at best, problematic. And whilst the ending provides a glimmer of hope for this deeply troubled character, the conclusion sorely lacks the justification for the levels of abuse and harm that the audience are exposed to.
To say that the film is insensitive to the issues that are explored would be wrong, just as it would be wrong to expect that these issues shouldn’t be explored- they absolutely should. But as a viewer, the presentation of the story feels akin to overhearing a deeply personal conversation, and then leaving with far more knowledge than you wanted to have, without any of the context that is needed in order for you to understand. This leads to the film feeling slightly voyeuristic, rather than allowing the audience to be compassionate, willing participants.
The film’s first act was incredibly promising and it’s a shame that the payoff never quite satisfies, though it’s certainly does enough to demonstrate Stephenson’s obvious talent.