The film’s central character is Layla, played by the exceptional Jessica Sula. Layla is 15, and has returned to Brixton to live with her mother after growing up in Trinidad. Her mother doesn’t welcome her presence, seeing Layla as a disruption to her life. Layla is largely left to he own devices, figuring everything out and adjusting to her new life on her own. She meets Shaun (Ntonga Mwanza), a sweet boy who wants to befriend and help her, and is clearly entranced by her beguiling beauty. Layla however, is drawn to local rapper Troy (Lucien Laviscount), and in an all too familiar story, gets caught up in a situation that becomes harder and harder for her to pull away from.
The film does get off to a slightly shaky start – the frostiness between Layla and her mother is challenging, and there is the worry that Layla’s mother is too much of a villain to generate any kind of empathy. But the performance of Jessica Sula alone is enough to carry the film through any niggling issues. A flashback scene at the start of the film sets the tension, yet Sula’s performance as Layla cannot be praised enough. We see the transformation from a shy, friendless child to a more confident- but not unbelievably so- young woman. Layla is vulnerable throughout; Sula rewards the audience with a layered, complex character, rather than a one-dimensional stereotype. She is foolish and selfish, yet encourages sympathy and understanding. She is sweet and alluring, yet not to the point of distraction, her performance is easily one of the best this year.
The story itself is simple, and it has to be. Johnson has a sensitivity towards her characters, and refuses to exploit their situation to create drama. The events that escalate throughout the story are tragic, but the frustration comes from the realisation that it all could have been so easily avoided if only one single person had the confidence to shout a little louder- or felt loved a little more. It’s terrifying to realise that you are aware of the inevitable outcome, because it is so familiar, and far too close to the reality of so many children who find themselves in a place where they are forced to be adults. It’s an exceptional, essential debut from Johnson, one that should reward her with the attention that she so obviously deserves.