September 2023

Arts & Letters

Major minors: ‘Last Film Show’ and ‘Scrapper’

By Judith Lucy

Bhavin Rabari in Last Film Show

Feature films from Pan Nalin and Charlotte Regan tell stories of children whose difficult circumstances don’t deprive them of community and love

Sometimes I think that I used to read a lot of self-help/New Age books because I enjoyed getting angry. I’ve thrown many a tome at a wall because, thanks for the advice, but maybe the arseholes in my life are just arseholes and not my greatest teachers? And yes, it would be lovely to see the world as I did when I was four and had a wide-open sense of curiosity and wonder, but now I have superannuation and bunions to worry about – not to mention my internal haemorrhoids. Who wouldn’t want to return to a time before they had adult ideas about normality and success, or they knew what self-loathing was? A time when what we thought was possible was only limited by what we could imagine. I wish I could still while away a morning with the help of nothing more than some pipe-cleaners and an egg carton, but that ship’s sailed and at least I can take drugs now. Of course, I would love to remember that feeling and, as a barren spinster, it’s been a while since I’ve even been around kids and seen just how wonderful the world can look through their eyes, even in the face of grim circumstances. How lucky then, for all of us jaded old cynics, that we can be reminded of the enchanted, fearless days of our youth simply by buying a movie ticket.

Last Film Show (or Chhello Show) is an Indian Gujarati-language film set in 2010 written and directed by Pan Nalin. It’s the story of nine-year-old Samay (Bhavin Rabari) and his love affair not just with movies but celluloid. Despite the 21st-century setting, Samay’s home village of Chalala, in the Saurashtra peninsula region, has largely been bypassed by modernisation. The town’s only cinema, the Galaxy, has but one screen and still uses a projector to play its 35-millimetre Hindi films. Samay and his little band of mates (Vikas Bata, Rahul Koli, Shoban Makwa, Kishan Parmar, Vijay Mer – the boys were all cast from local communities) spend their time riding their bikes and making mischief without a computer screen in sight. Who needs one when you can hide in the long grass and spy on a pride of actual lions? But even by this impoverished place’s standards, Samay’s family is poor. His father (Dipen Raval) is a high-caste Brahmin who was swindled out of his 500 cattle by his brother, and so he ekes out a meagre living by making chai, which his young son sells to the passengers of the steam train that passes through the town.

The patriarch believes that movies are shameful but he does take his family to the Galaxy to see a deeply religious film about the Hindu goddess Kali. The subject matter might be sacred to his father, but thanks to the colours, the dancing and the light that emanates from the projector, it is the medium that Samay winds up worshipping. Already an imaginative child, his world is suddenly and irrevocably expanded.

Soon the little boy is sneaking off to the cinema at every opportunity, but when he is thrown out for not having a ticket he strikes up a relationship with the projectionist, Fazal (Bhavesh Shrimali); in exchange for eating the delicious meals prepared by the boy’s mother (Richa Meena), Fazal lets the kid watch movies from his booth. There Samay delights in being exposed to every imaginable genre, but he is no passive observer. A born storyteller, he wants to understand how the movies work and make his own. Samay sees his life differently now and wants to grasp the interplay of light and colour. He shares his knowledge with his friends and tells them that they must learn how to “catch the light”, and, ultimately, they do. Through trial and error, the boys make a simple projector that can screen movies on Samay’s mother’s white sari.

Naturally, our protagonist encounters obstacles. His father still disapproves of his passion and there are consequences when the boys use the Galaxy’s movies as their own private library, but, to a certain extent, it is a Western idea of progress that is the real enemy in Last Film Show. The old steam train is to be replaced, robbing Samay’s father of his livelihood, and the beloved Galaxy is about to experience big changes as well. Will Samay, as he says at one point, still “become movies”?

Pan Nalin may not be India’s answer to Spielberg (not yet, anyway) but this is his The Fabelmans. Nalin was brought up in a village in the Saurashtra region, and Samay’s love for film – both the medium and the material – is clearly his. The wonderful Fazal informs his young friend that “The future belongs to storytellers”, and Nalin is that future.

Nalin has utilised different styles in his previous movies (Samsara, Valley of Flowers, Angry Indian Goddesses), but considering that Last Film Show begins with the dedication “Gratitude for illuminating the path: Lumiere Brothers, Eadweard Muybridge, David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky”, it’s not hard to guess who his influences are and how he wants this film to look. The colours of India are made to be filmed by a man who loves David Lean. Thanks to Swapnil S. Sonawane the cinematography is exquisite, whether capturing the fading beauty of the old cinema or the meals prepared by Samay’s mother, which look like works of art. Nalin’s enthusiasm for 35 millimetre is contagious and not just because of the vivid and luminous look of his movie but because he manages to convey the physicality of film; we feel the weight of the canisters and projector, sense the satisfaction of cutting and splicing, and see the beauty of an unspooling reel. At one point the boys even ride around wearing strips of celluloid like sunglasses. What a way to see the world! No wonder so many great masters of cinema prefer film over digital, and Nalin salutes them.

Last Film Show is a simple story lovingly told with convincing performances. You can’t take your eyes off Rabari, and Shrimali will break your heart. It did feel a little long, and Samay’s childhood world is a very male one, but there is much to enjoy here and the final scenes made me reach for the tissue box. My strongest recommendation is that if you’re going to see this love letter to movies, for the love of God, see it on the big screen.

Scrapper, written and directed by Charlotte Regan, gives us another smart, independent child, but this time it’s 12-year-old Georgie (Lola Campbell), who’s recently lost her beloved mother to cancer. Georgie is very much a part of her working-class neighbourhood in England and has at least some of those in it (most notably the social workers) believing that she is now being cared for by her uncle, “Winston Churchill”. The reality is that she and her best mate, Ali (Alin Uzun), make ends meet by nicking and selling bikes. Georgie’s world is not unravelling, though. She keeps her apartment as immaculate as her mother did and is trying to work through the seven stages of grief with her “counsellor” – the well-meaning Ali. Life seems manageable until her father, Jason (Harris Dickinson), turns up. Jason at 30 seems no more than a big kid himself and it’s difficult to know whether Georgie is angrier about his sudden appearance or his early abandonment of her and her mother. His attempts to win the young girl over are clumsy to say the least and it’s hard not to share her suspicions about what’s really motivating him.

I spent a lot of Scrapper waiting for it to turn into some sort of Ken Loach tragedy (which would certainly not have been a bad thing), but Regan clearly wanted to tell a different story to the one we’ve come to expect from this milieu. The director spent some of her childhood living with her grandmother in a north London tower block and her experience was not one of gloom but of joy and community, and that is certainly what we see in her moving, funny film. Georgie’s world is one of play and humour. She and Ali are full of jokes and games that make every day a little adventure, complete with talking spiders. The movie is also brimming with colour, whether it’s the rainbow pastels of the estate or the pink everything worn by the group of mean girls (who aren’t really that mean). Like in Last Film Show, despite the very different settings, these kids inhabit a world full of light and joy.

Georgie’s distress over her mother’s death isn’t sidestepped. She continually watches the only clip she has of her mother, and when she loses her phone her anger tips over into an act of violence, but this isn’t a pivotal moment in the movie. There is a pervasive sense of safety and care in Georgie’s world and people cut her some slack because of her loss. In lesser hands, Scrapper could have been mawkish – especially when it comes to a mysterious locked room in Georgie’s flat – but instead, these scenes, like much of the film, are both poignant and a testament to how imagination can help us deal with the toughest of times.

Regan was determined to be true to the world she was trying to lovingly capture and many of the kids in the background are from the estate where the movie was shot. The production team also took their time finding their Georgie in Campbell, who comes from a similar environment, and then worked with her for weeks before filming started. It was worth it. Both she and the other unknown, Uzun, are terrific. Apparently, Campbell’s performance really clicked into place when she started rehearsing with Dickinson, and their relationship is simply charming to watch. Dickinson is ridiculously likeable here and somehow manages to portray this hopeless man/boy as someone you wind up rooting for.

Scrapper is Regan’s feature-film debut after several shorts and more than 200 music videos, and, to be honest, we probably didn’t need some of its slightly gimmicky elements, such as the talking spiders and occasional shots of minor characters talking to camera, but that’s a quibble. I loved this movie. Its anchor is the slow blossoming of a relationship between a father and a daughter, but it begins with the quote: “It takes a village to raise a child.” It’s presumably Georgie’s character who crosses this out and writes: “I can raise myself, thanks.” No, she can’t.

Both Last Film Show and Scrapper make you wish that every child could have access to community, creativity and love. Those elements are so essential – and not just for kids. Now, excuse me while I spend a few hours turning an egg carton and some pipe-cleaners into a monkey.

Judith Lucy

Judith Lucy is a comedian, actor, writer, broadcaster and movie nerd.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Letter from Dunkley

As a byelection draws the nation’s focus to the scrappy suburb of the author’s childhood, a visit reveals the damage wrought by the housing crisis

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

In This Issue

Writers Guild of America protest in New York, May 10, 2023

Workers’ singularity: AI and the future of art and labour

The Hollywood writers’ strike has put a spotlight on the impact artificial intelligence may have on artistic endeavour

Detail of the cover of the first issue of The Phantom, published September 1948

Purple reign: The 75th anniversary of ‘The Phantom’

The longevity of the world’s first costumed superhero reflects an Australian publishing success story

Image of Parliament House, Canberra, under storm clouds

Robodebt and the life of Canberra staffers

Does the extreme pressure put on Canberra’s overworked political staffers fuel tragedies such as robodebt?

Cover image of ‘Fraud’

Zadie Smith’s ‘The Fraud’

The acclaimed English writer’s latest book employs its 19th-century setting to interrogate the form of the novel

More in Arts & Letters

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions

More in Film

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

Michael Fassbender in ’The Killer’, sitting in a room cross-legged on a mat, wearing black gloves

Into the streaming void: ‘The Killer’ and ‘They Cloned Tyrone’

David Fincher’s stylish pulp and Juel Taylor’s SF-adjacent satire are the latest riches to be taken for granted in the ever-ready, abundant world of Netflix

Nick Cave performing with The Birthday Party at The Venue, London, 1981

The candles flicker and dim: ‘Mutiny in Heaven: The Birthday Party’

Ian White’s documentary captures the incendiary trajectory of the seminal Melbourne band at the expense of the inertia that fuelled it

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality