'Scheme Birds': Film Review | Tribeca 2019

Tribeca Film Festival
Little girl lost.

A Scottish teenager navigates hardship upon hardship in a harrowing nonfiction feature that won best documentary honors at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin open their documentary feature Scheme Birds, which just took a top prize at the Tribeca Film Festival, with a moment out of time. Scottish teenager Gemma is doing what many girls her age might — scrolling through the photos and Facebook feed on her phone, pausing to look over images and references to one young man in particular. It's not clear who he is or, indeed, when and where we are. What is apparent, if subtly, is that Gemma is humbled in a way that is very new to her, though as we soon find out, dejection and discouragement are default to her existence.

From here, Fiske and Hallin go back a few years and proceed chronologically through Gemma's life. Born in 1997 in Motherwell, a formerly booming Scottish industrial town hit hard by policies instituted by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Gemma has basically known nothing but hardship. She's been raised by her grandfather since infancy because her drug-addict mother abandoned her. And she spends the majority of her days treading a fine line between soul-sucking boredom and temperamental delinquency.

A tremendous lot happens in Scheme Birds' 90 minutes: Gemma gets pregnant by her ne'er-do-well boyfriend, Pat, and is disowned by her grandfather. She moves to an apartment complex where violence is frequent enough that residents discuss it as if remarking on the weather. She befriends another troubled young woman, Amy, as well as a 16-year-old named J.P. (he's the boy she's looking at online in the opening scene), who is soon after beaten to within an inch of his life. Amid all this turmoil, Gemma, affecting the steeliest of auras, attempts to raise her young son Liam with more love and light than she herself has ever known.

There are no talking-head interviews. Any thoughts or commentary are via voiceover, which tends to be laid atop scenes of Gemma and the people around her passing time in whatever way they can. Onscreen drama is minimal. We hear about significant upheavals, such as Gemma's familial fallout or J.P.'s attack, long after they happen. The movie is shot in an intimately off-the-cuff manner by Hallin herself, and edited by Hanna Lejonqvist in ways that suggestively blur the boundaries between fiction and fact. It all feels purgatorial, as if Gemma lives her life in an endless wake of physical and emotional brutality. The inciting events have lost their power to shock. Numbness is everything — the best way to survive.

It's a testament to the filmmakers' talent and sensitivity that Scheme Birds is never unbearable to watch, nor unduly sentimental in the way of so much liberal-minded cinema. The directors follow their subject wherever she goes, even if it's away from easily exploited symbols like the homing pigeons that Gemma's grandfather raises. Early on, Gemma waxes poetic about the birds' uncanny abilities to find their way back to their point of origin. You steel yourself for when the metaphor will come to mawkish fruition. Instead, Fiske and Hallin show, over the course of their very affecting movie, how this naive analogy both complements and conflicts with the ups-and-downs of Gemma's reality.

There are lessons to be learned, but they're not the obvious ones. The business of living can never be so easily summed up.

With: Gemma, Pat, Joseph, Scott, Luke, Amy, John Paul, Maria
Directors-screenwriters: Ellen Fiske, Ellinor Hallin

Producers: Mario Adamson, Ruth Reid
Cinematographer: Ellinor Hallin
Editor: Hanna Lejonqvist
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
North American sales: Greg Rubidge (Syndicado Film Sales)
International sales: Aleksandar Govedarica (Syndicado Film Sales)

90 minutes