Amaryllis review – the oddest split-screen silent-movie musical you’ll ever see

Thomas Lawes plays a synth score on screen as a teen drama plays out above – a bold experiment that doesn’t fully work

Director Thomas Lawes is the proverbial one-man band on this modern silent movie. He has not only written, filmed, edited and composed the music, but is also visible playing the keyboards, guitars and drums of the synthwave score in split screen underneath the action, like a funky sign-language interpreter. It’s a kitsch formal quirk that initially adds a kind of distancing effect to this simple urban fable, but it quickly becomes invisible (presumably less so in screenings with live accompaniment).

Ella McLoughlin plays Amaryllis, a sullen, beanie-hatted skater girl living with her alcoholic mum (Liz May Brice). After breaking into a warehouse where waifish drug dealer Roach (Adam El Hagar) is doing business, she manages to worm her way into running errands for him. Taking a cut, she aims to save enough to move out and, as she scrawls in animated diary snippets, “not have to see my stupid fucking bitch mother EVER AGAIN!” But as Roach takes to pulling up at her door in his flame-emblazoned camper van, Amaryllis begins to fall for the doe-eyed pusher.

Propelled by Lawes’ music, Amaryllis’s drug-running missions have a picaresque rush as she skates around town; the fresh-faced McLoughlin, with no dialogue to lean on, is expressive without turning the film into an extended charades session. But Lawes’ split-screen gimmick isn’t really innovative – apart from one moment when a rapper in the main action threatens to beat-box his way across the diegetic divide – and only adds a minor boost to a teen photostory with little to surprise. The romantic Cornish surfing interlude is particularly cheesy, and there are some clunky workarounds, like dialogue scrawled on bits of paper held up to windows. In the end this is a better advert for Lawes’s composing than his storytelling.

• Amaryllis is released in cinemas on 25 November.


Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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