White Girl, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Hettie Macdonald, will be shown this coming Monday as part of BBC2’s White season. It tells the story of Leah (the brilliant Holly Kenny from Mischief Night), a wide-eyed, fabulously foul-mouthed eleven year old who, with her mother and younger half-brother and sister, moves away from her violent step-father to a largely Islamic part of Bradford: the only house that social services will offer. At first Leah is frightened and repelled by her apparently inscrutable new neighbours, but as her family troubles deepen and she is befriended by the family next door, she finds friendship, solace and a kind of peace in their company — and in Islam. The film is tender, funny and deeply moving, as proved by the damp-eyed audience at this week’s BAFTA screening. It’s also wonderfully shot, with Hettie Macdonald showing the same skill in finding unexpected beauty as she did in Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, and has terrific, brave performances from Anna Maxwell Martin and Daniel Mays.
White Girl has already provoked strong reactions from BBC viewers, most claiming (via the programme’s website) either that the film is a “recruitment tool for Islam”, or that it demonises the white working class. One commentator says that he “would like to talk to this idiot Abi Morgan and find out just exactly what research she did before writing this nonsense”: nonsense, of course, that he hasn’t seen, because it doesn’t air until Monday.
White Girl certainly presents a positive view of Islam, and a negative one of Leah’s troubled, fractured family. But it’s not a film about Islam, nor is it about the working class: it’s a film about Leah, and how she and her family respond to circumstance. Leah doesn’t turn to Islam because Britain benefits from multiculturalism; she turns to it because it gives her peace, and irritates her mother. And this, perhaps, is the difficulty with seasons like White. While they certainly help to provoke debate, and find a broader audience for often uncommercial work, they can give individual programmes a weight they never asked for, and a responsibility they shouldn’t have to carry. It’s wrong to judge White Girl as a statement. Instead we should judge it as a story, told through the eyes of a child. In this it succeeds triumphantly, the best British film of the year so far.