Actors directing features at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival tackled wildly different material, but each displayed an attempt to try something ambitious. Maybe hanging around in front of the camera engenders a desire to figure out its boundaries, or perhaps veterans of the set simply develop the need to control it. Either way, each of these projects — Drew Barrymore’s ensemble studio comedy “Whip It,” Tim Blake Nelson’s redneck satire “Leaves of Grass” with Edward Norton in dual roles as twins, and Samantha Morton’s abandoned child portrait “The Unloved” — succeed on their own terms. However, only Morton’s quietly moving, thoughtful character study bears the mark of a mature storyteller with unique insight into the mind of its troubled lead.
The personal component of “The Unloved” likely stems from its autobiographical foundation (Morton based the screenplay on her own experiences). The movie follows Lucy (Molly Windsor), a young British girl whose neglectful father constantly abuses her. In the early scenes, social services move Lucy to another home, and she begins life anew and adrift. Well-meaning but ultimately distant foster parents fail to crack her shell. Lucy is quietly, unsettlingly remote while the energies of others surround her like an endless void. Morton eschews a detailed narrative arc in favor of constantly sympathizing with Lucy’s plight. We see her drift through a cemetery and huddle in bed, lost in thought and confusion. She rarely speaks and barely moves, but Morton generates pathos for the character nonetheless; she’s a child who hasn’t had the opportunity to fully develop her personality.
That’s also the source of the movie’s didactic thrust. Produced for British television (although it’s certainly shot, with sweeping, colorful landscapes, to fit the big screen), “The Unloved” concludes by universalizing its seemingly particular story. Title cards inform us that “71,476 children are in care in the UK,” while “36,405 children are on the ‘at risk’ register in the UK.” Culling from the kitchen sink tradition, Morton has crafted an intricate slice of activism in cinematic form. While occasionally monotonous, it’s never boring. Because the camera forces viewers to adopt Lucy’s perspective — remaining at her height and even allowing her, in the closing shot, to directly gaze out at the audience — her “at risk” status becomes one that everyone must share.