Broken begins with loosely shuffled snippets of character and drama. When the film snaps into narrative focus, it’s with a sudden act of violence: On a quiet cul-de-sac, a young man washes his car. A passing neighbor girl says hello. The boy appears not quite all there: He has a hard time putting words in order, but he seems kind. As the girl departs, another neighbor appears, pulling his shirt off before knocking the young man halfway across the car.
Our young heroine, Skunk Cunningham (a lovely, natural Eloise Laurence) is a modern-day Scout Finch; the car-washing fellow, Rick Buckley, is her Boo Radley. Broken is based on Daniel Clay’s novel of the same name, which was inspired by To Kill a Mockingbird, though “inspired” sometimes seems too weak a term, at least where the movie is concerned. If you remember anything of Mockingbird from high school, you’ll see where this is going — but you may also wonder what compelling reason there is to go there, and what new insight Clay, director Rufus Norris and screenwriter Mark O’Rowe intended to bring to the story.
Sweet, trusting Skunk sits at the movie’s center, while adults and vicious teens — and one jokey but nice young suitor — spin around her. Her mother left when she was young; her father, Archie (a surprisingly gentle Tim Roth), hired a nanny-housekeeper named Kasia (Zana Marjanovic), who has a charming but noncommittal boyfriend, Mike (Cillian Murphy, excellently playing a perfectly ordinary fellow).
Next door, the Oswald clan is also motherless. A random lie from the middle Oswald girl, Susan (Rosalie Kosky), spurs the act of violence at the movie’s start: She tells her father (Rory Kinnear) that Rick Buckley raped her.
Susan tells her father this because he’s chasing her around the house, enraged at finding a condom wrapper in her trash. What results from her desperate lie is as much Mr. Oswald’s fault as it is Susan’s. But as Broken continues, looping in crushes and breakups, teenage hookups and school bullies, the story circles back to Susan and her lie and multiplies it. The movie becomes a beautifully photographed after school special wherein the fallout of one girl’s sexuality has hideous results for everyone around her — and for the poor girl herself.
Maybe Broken is trying to be sympathetic to Susan and her sisters; maybe it intends for their actions to be an indictment of violent, defensive Mr. Oswald, though I’m not sure that helps the movie’s retrograde sense of morality, where virginal girls are sweet and loved and girls who have sex wreak havoc on their neighborhood and are punished. On one level, Broken is a pretty good film: Laurence is the very definition of winning, the quiet scenes are quite effective and Norris and his team have an eye for precise details, from Skunk’s perfect wardrobe to the overgrown junkyard where she makes a clubhouse in an old camper. It just can’t quite get out from under an overwrought story that relies too heavily on half-formed characters and ugly clichés.
BROKEN: Directed by Rufus Norris. Screenplay by Mark O’Rowe, based on the novel by Daniel Clay. Cinematography, Rob Hardy. Editor, Victoria Boydell. Music, Electric Wave Bureau. Starring Tim Roth, Cillian Murphy, Rory Kinnear, Eloise Laurence, Zana Marjanovic and Robert Emms. Film Movement, 2013. 91 minutes. Two and a half stars.