Tina is a prototypical rough-edged girl living in an English council estate. She can be crude and angry, but the arrival of Dana, an Afghani girl, to her neighborhood, has a softening effect—Tina takes a shine to the isolated girl, and instinctively aims to protect her from the daily prejudice and harassment she suffers from others—and from her father. But whom are her efforts really for?
Growing up in the 80’s as a mixed race kid, writer/director Toby Fell-Holden was inspired to tackle the search for identity and a sense of safety common to teenagers, and through Dana is able to construct an “innocent” for Tina to project her complicated feelings upon. But the film devastatingly undermines this “white savior” narrative in the third act. Fell-Holden is interested in storytelling that warps our sense of reality instead, and citing David Michôd’s short film Crossbow as an inspiration for the voiceover, the structure of Balcony emerges slowly through the film. The audience is blindly guided by Tina’s perspective until the film rips the rug out from under our feet.
All along, the director aimed to challenge his audience into reevaluating our attitude towards the seemingly straight-forward plot, and, hopefully, see through an honest lens the repercussions of racially tense conjecture in gossip-heavy environments. In doing so he reveals the limitations of our prejudiced perspectives, both through the explicit twist of the film’s conclusion, but also by successfully mixing a myriad of hot-button themes into the film: bullying, racial and religious stereotyping, patriarchal repression, sexual abuse, and lesbian romance, all combine in an unstable way, provoking volatile reactions. The result is a film that is uncommonly nuanced, but does not lack for fireworks.
The beginning starts as a forbidden love story, the titular balcony of Dana’s apartment giving a Romeo and Juliet, Prince and Damsel-in-distress dimension. But nothing is one-dimensional, and as the film goes on, the audience realizes that not everything is as it seems. We are only seeing one side of the story, and are subject to an emotional manipulation which leads us to question where the truth really is and which direction will the narrative take. Once the illusion reveals itself, the pacing picks up and we as the audience can only sit helpless as the situation dramatically unfolds, almost feeling complicit.
The audience’s involvement is critical to the impact of the film, and it mostly relies on a remarkable performance from Charlotte Beaumont (Broadchurch). Tina is a very complex character and Beaumont effortlessly brings to the screen the duality of being both a victim and an aggressor with a rare sensitivity and authenticity. She makes her character likable and when all her layers reveal themselves, she nails every single shot, eliciting so much without mentioning her inner trauma. It may seem regressive to tell the story of an immigrant outsider through the lens of Tina, but Fell-Holden smartly makes that the point of the film—indicting the viewer and so many other films that have come before, which seek to explain a minority story via a white avatar. This familiar narrative is in Balcony, the source of tragedy.
Balcony had a very successful run on the festival circuit after its premiere at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival, with notable stops at Tribeca, Palm Springs’ ShortFest and Melbourne. It also picked up the Crystal Bear at the 66th Berlinale. Fell-Holden is now working on several feature projects, still touching on the same issues of race, identity, sexuality and power, including a feature version of Balcony.