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Review | ‘Scrapper’ is bursting with humor, heart and vagrant scraps of joy

(3.5 stars)

Meet Georgie, the human spark plug at the energetic heart of “Scrapper”: Georgie is 12 years old, and she’s been living alone in the London flat she shared with her late mother, avoiding social services by insisting that she lives with her uncle, Winston Churchill. As “Scrapper” opens, Georgie is tidying up the apartment, arranging the couch pillows exactly as they were in the last photo she has of her beloved mom. She looks at her list of the stages of grief and crosses off “bargaining,” which means “depression” is next.

Viewers expecting a dour study in British miserabilism are in for a bracing surprise in this warmly affecting portrait of resilience at its flintiest and funniest. Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Charlotte Regan, this quirky slice of life seeks to subvert nearly every expectation set up by what was once called kitchen-sink drama, with its monochrome palette and hangdog naturalism. Instead, “Scrapper” bursts with color (the units in Georgie’s apartment complex are painted glorious shades of pink, yellow and aquamarine), and the story is equally alive with optimism and vagrant scraps of pure joy.

At first, those moments of exuberance come from Georgie herself — an unforgettable character played by newcomer Lola Campbell with an irresistible combination of toughness and vulnerability. With her best friend Ali (Alin Uzun), Georgie spends most of her time stealing bicycles, which the pair hastily repaint and sell for a few pounds. Quick on her feet, Georgie can be depended on to talk their way out of a bind when they’re caught red-handed. Her ferociously independent existence is going just fine until her father, Jason — who left when she was a baby — shows up out of nowhere. Just when this man-child is ready to take responsibility, his actual child has zero interest in being parented.

Harris Dickinson, last seen in the wealth-disparity satire “Triangle of Sadness,” is virtually unrecognizable as Jason, who has been living on Ibiza and has the bleach-blond tips to prove it. Audiences conditioned to fear the worst — i.e., anyone who’s seen “Fish Tank” or “Aftersun” — will be understandably wary of Jason’s newfound commitment to fatherhood. In Dickinson’s alert, always-game hands, his character slowly morphs from a maybe-shady party boy to someone far more appealing and substantive.

Regan directs “Scrapper” with exceptional verve, interrupting the narrative with witty documentarylike asides whose framing evokes the poppy aesthetic of Wes Anderson. In addition to making a stunning discovery in Campbell, she lets the audience in on her own vicarious pleasure at simply watching her two lead players riff and improvise off each other, often with hilarious results, such as when they play at impersonating two strangers at a train station. As much as Regan infuses her film with cheerful bravado, the grief underlying Georgie’s don’t-mess-with-me independence is never far from the surface.

As a world-builder, Regan has made a film every bit as feisty, self-possessed and street-smart as Georgie herself. Delicately dancing the knife edge between too-cute and over-maudlin, the filmmaker and her terrific actors have given viewers that rarity in cinema: uplift without the dreary moralizing. To use Georgie’s term of art, “Scrapper” really knows how to style it out.

Unrated. At the Avalon Theatre. Contains nothing objectionable. 84 minutes.

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