A raw fiction debut that feels like a romantic comedy with all of the bullshit taken out, Peter Mackie Burns’ “Daphne” is a remarkably real and well-realized big screen version of an archetype that has given birth to some of the best new television on both sides of the pond: The self-destructive single girl. “I’ve sort of given up on people, haven’t I?” Daphne (Emily Beecham) rhetorically asks one of her few remaining friends as she stumbles through another night at the pub, slurping down a glass of whatever keeps the feelings away.
A brittle 31-year-old Londoner who wears some heavy emotional armor and has a major Moira Shearer thing going on, Daphne may enjoy the odd spot of coked up sex in the bathroom of her local bar, but she doesn’t need a man to complete her. On the contrary, she doesn’t need anyone to do anything — or at least that’s the line she keeps selling herself. Cut from the same cloth as Mickey in “Love” or, uh, Fleabag in “Fleabag,” Daphne vibrates with the singular sense of self that makes those other characters feel alive and indifferent; and thanks to Beecham’s outstanding lead performance, she’s able to achieve it in just a fraction of the time.
What separates Burns’ heroine from the other women of her ilk (or at least the two name-checked above), is that her big tragedy is still ahead of her. And fortunately for Daphne, her tragedy isn’t even that big — hell, it’s not even really hers. This is a film that respects how difficult it can be for people to recognize the moments that change them, or understand why those are the moments that do, and so it takes a while for Daphne to recognize how shaken she was by her involvement in a robbery gone wrong. One second she was just weighing the price for a pack of cigarettes, the next she was reluctantly tending to a stabbed bodega cashier as he almost bled out on the floor of his shop. At first, the incident doesn’t seem to get under her skin (one of the subsequent scenes finds Daphne getting plastered and googling Ryan Gosling), but it isn’t long before a few cracks start to form along the fault lines of her disaffected facade; it isn’t long before the girl who refuses to indulge in other people’s pity starts to realize that she could desperately use a little for herself.
Almost perfectly threading the needle between hardscrabble drama and raucous comedy, the movie maintains that middle ground from start to finish, but never stops feeling as though it could veer in either direction at a moment’s notice. Burns’ style does a great deal to help with that stability. Damped with natural lighting and shot with a tactile intimacy that often obscures its namesake behind walls or splinters her image across several reflective surfaces (as if she’s embarrassed to be on camera), “Daphne” sees London through the eyes of someone for whom the city has lost all of its shine. At the same time, Nico Mensinga’s script buoys its inertia with some great one-liners (“I’m still wearing a sports bra because I can’t be arsed,” Daphne tells a stranger she meets on the bus), and intersperses the heavier moments with an amusing series of catastrophic meet-cutes as his wayward protagonist sardonically offers a shag to anyone who strikes up a conversation.
Joe (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), Daphne’s boss at the restaurant where she works, is the one man she doesn’t try to sleep with, even though he shares her misanthropic worldview and offers her a golden opportunity to ruin a marriage and make a real mess of things. “Love is a necessary delusion to blind all us together to propagate our shitty species,” Daphne tells Joe, both of them trying to ignore how much easier life might be if you could spend it with someone who felt the same way.
There’s a lot going on across the film’s deceptively slack 87 minutes, but Beecham — who Coen brothers die-hards might recognize from her brief turn opposite Alden Ehrenreich in “Hail, Caesar!” — delivers a commanding performance makes every seismic shift in her character seem organic to the core. Daphne may be traveling along a familiar arc, but Beecham never allows her in on that secret. Flippant and volatile, natural but just heightened enough to entertainingly sustain three acts of sub-dermal self-improvement, Beecham plays every scene from both sides, as though Daphne knows that she needs people to disappoint her in order to keep surviving on misanthropy alone. She’s fearlessly unlikeable, but refuses to make a meal of that. Complete and convincing, perhaps the greatest testament to Beecham’s indelible work is how easy she makes it to forget that this film was written and directed by two men (Beecham has frequently collaborated with Burns and Mensinga in the past, and may have had a much greater influence on this film than the credits suggest).
“Daphne” is a modest movie, one that feels more like a snack than a meal, but it’s so vivid and disarming precisely because it doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel or deliver its red-haired heroine unto salvation. This is the rare story about the value of putting the cart before the horse, about someone who first needs to act like she gives a shit about something, and then reverse engineer her own fractured spirit to the point where that’s actually true. “It’s a tough fucking world,” Joe tells Daphne, “And you’ve got to be tough as well.” But to be tough — really tough, and not just hard — she might need to go a little easier on herself.
“Daphne” is playing in the Narrative Spotlight section of SXSW 2017. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.