Only the obvious title seriously mars “Last Resort,” a small but surprisingly moving film which is the first entry in this spring’s Shooting Gallery Independent Film Series (for information, check out www.shootinggallery.com). Polish writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski has previously concentrated on documentaries, and that past experience shows in the stark simplicity and straightforward matter-of-factness he brings to the story of a young Russian woman who arrives in England with her young son, only to be shunned by the man she considered her fiance and shunted off to a holding area for impecunious immigrants in a run-down seaside resort town. What might have been either a stickily maudlin family melodrama or a crushingly didactic treatise on immigration policy becomes, in Pawlikowski’s expert hands, reminiscent of the Italian neorealist classics of the 1950s. “Last Resort” doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve; it paints its portrait of grit in the face of desperate circumstances and an uncaring bureaucracy with welcome subtlety. By eschewing sentimentality and exaggeration, it honestly earns the warm reception it will receive from audiences looking for something a bit out of the ordinary.
The no-frills film begins with the arrival of Tanya (Dina Korzun), a youngish mother, and her street-smart son Artiom (Artiom Strelnikov) at a British airport, where they’re hustled off to be questioned by customs officials; when the Englishman who was supposed to meet them doesn’t arrive to pick them up, the duo are installed, along with scads of other unwanted immigrants, in a bleak high-rise at Stonehaven, where they’re to be kept under surveillance for the many months their cases are pending. The coastal town is home to a decaying amusement park, and the pair gradually are befriended by Alfie (Paddy Considine), a likable ex-con who runs a local arcade and serves as caller at the old folks’ bingo games. Alfie becomes a father-figure to Artiom and gently romances Tanya, but the boy nonetheless gets into trouble with the other local street kids, while his mother is offered employment by cyber-pornographer Les (Lindsey Honey), who sells snippets of attractive women engaging in suggestive poses over the internet to a growing clientele. Alfie comes to realize that he has to help them escape their virtual imprisonment if they’re to survive as a family, but he also knows that if he manages to succeed, he’ll afford Tanya the opportunity to return to Russia, closing off any chance of their staying together.
If it were clumsily handled, this narrative might have become intolerably mawkish, but Pawlikowski renders it with commendable restraint and the documentarian’s eye for telling but unobtrusive detail. All the characters–even the pornographer, played by a famous real-life one in Honey–are portrayed in a straightforward, unexaggerated way, and most of the episodes are nicely understated (though Alfie’s rage when he hears of Tanya’s association with Les veers too far into melodrama). The actors, for the most part, keep things realistic as well. Korzun presents a well-drawn picture of a woman both determined and vulnerable, while Considine tones down the manic forcefulness that he exhibited in “A Room for Romeo Brass,” turning in a subdued performance as the good-natured Brit. Strelnikov, who when photographed full-face bears an uncanny resemblance to an adolescent Leonardo DiCaprio, is amazingly natural, catching the boy’s alternating moods of cockiness and uncertainty beautifully. And Honey perfectly embodies the pornographer’s combination of businesslike efficiency and sleaziness.
Of course “Last Resort” will disappoint viewers looking for big action scenes or phonily happy endings; but those willing to be touched by an honest, unaffected drama played on an intimate scale but involving significant social issues–something like a British variant of Martin Bell’s sadly neglected “American Heart” from 1992 (and Bell was a former documentary filmmaker, too)– should find it a rewarding change of pace from the usual run of Hollywood blockbusters.