Pond Life is the near perfect feature debut from director Bill Buckhurst. A delightful time capsule of epochal folk transience, the film benefits from an unusually assured young cast, smart aesthetics and a remarkable script by Richard Cameron, adapting his own play. It’s all wonderfully naturalistic – poetically so, not without irony – and boasts a tremendous feeling for locality. Esme Creed-Miles, meanwhile, will blow you away as gentle, tragic Pogo.
The film opens to a late Summer’s day in the rural village of Edlington, South Yorkshire, circa 1994. It’s easy to forget just how much as changed in a quarter of the last century but it’s a keen eye for detail that sees Buckhurst load his mise en scène with gameboys, door stop televisions and, auspiciously, a dearth of mobile phones. Perhaps it is a reflection on the digital age’s perception on its own past, but all feels rather antiquated in Edlington. Like a pocket out of time, the village and its quaintly odd residents seem to be poised in permanent anticipation of some imminent event. Tony Blair weighs heavy in the background, albeit considered an outsider for number ten by the villagers, and there’s the local legend that says a giant carp lurks within the local waters, waiting to be caught. Epitomising all, young, naive Pogo (Creed-Miles, currently heading up Amazon’s Hanna spin off too) attempts to capture exoticism within the mundane via the cassette recorder she carries everywhere.
Pogo’s closest friend is Trevor (Tom Varey), a good soul with a penchant for angling and itchy feet. There’s no longer room for Trevor at home – parents Russ (Shaun Dooley) and Irene (Sally Lindsay) need him out, whilst sister Cassie (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is too busy with local bad boy Maurice (Abraham Lewis) to care either way – and a job in the near town beckons. How he’ll break this to Pogo is a looming challenge, with her learning difficulties and recent traumas rendering her wholly dependent, but that can wait. In the mean time, there’s a carp to be caught – ‘a big bugger…with a back like a pig’ – and quiet adventures must still be had. That said, there are dark histories lurking in the muddy waters of Edlington and calm waters can be deceptive.
Though the main drive here is the build up to Trevor’s final fishing trip at the local pond – coming of age beats are tangible but admirably subtle – snatches of life jostle for attention. Vignettes capture the village quiz night and the kids who use a dumped sofa and television in the local park to play a make believe night in. Peripheral characters float in and out of events, each carrying the heft of a backstory that we will never know. Thematically, this all very neatly ties to the fixation with fishing but is underplayed just enough not to feel forced. As Pogo wields her recorder, Buckhurst too takes infectious pleasure in drawing his own line across a landed ecosystem now lost to another time. If the surface seems calm, within life thrums. This is a unique but hugely relatable world, three dimensional but entirely insular in the penitentiary of localism.
Translating theatre to film can prove a troublesome task but Buckhurst can call this a success. No sense of staging pervades what is an essentially quaint tale of existence. For all the serenity, there’s darkness here too and heartbreak provides a poignant bedfellow for comic flair. As for Creed-Miles, keep your eye on that one. Much like her mother, Samantha Morton, once did, she has a strength of character and performative vitality that will take her far.