If you build it

This blog isn’t normally about film or book reviews, but over the last seven days I’ve seen a film twice because I enjoyed watching it so much – something that I hadn’t done since I was a kid. I’m referring to the feel-good film of the summer, the British movie Fast Girls, as if you didn’t know.

Although this film uses every cliché in the sports film arsenal, the writers and director still pull it off. They have produced a hugely uplifting and enjoyable tale. There is the underdog sprinter Shania, who lives on a council estate, is an orphan and has no emotional or financial support from her sister or aunt. Her arch nemesis is runner Lisa Temple, a spoilt daddy’s girl whose father once won gold at the Olympics and now wants to relive his glory days through his daughter.

The two young women go head to head in the relay race of their lives and are also rivals when it comes to winning the heart of their floppy-haired physio Carl, made even more desirable, because he’s forbidden fruit – athletes are strictly forbidden to “fraternise” with staff at the National Athletics Academy, don’t you know…

This blog is about how locations can be used to set the scene for our writing and draw our readers in as well as using locations as a metaphor for the internal struggles our protagonists are experiencing. The use of location in Fast Girls is fantastic. There’s the derelict sports track on which Shania and her grumpy trainer Brian, a shopkeeper who stands in as her father figure (veteran actor Phil Davis giving a great performance), use for Shania’s training sessions. A track surrounded by run down council estates and brown field sites, a track in the middle of nowhere…going nowhere for runners like Shania, or so she has been led to believe by her sister and most people she knows.

There’s also Shania’s bleak council estate home which is contrasted by Lisa’s posh house in suburbia not to mention the sports track in Barcelona, where the girls get their first taste of sports stardom and the stress that is involved in professional athletes’ lives. When the girls enter the arena the bright floodlights and roar of the crowd startle them and just like them, we blink and shrink back into ourselves for a moment to take it all in.

Noel Clarke

When physio Carl (played by Bradley James, on loan from the BBC’s Merlin, where he plays King Arthur) asks Shania, why she is running, she replies to him “to get to somewhere better”. When I saw the film for the first time, I agreed with some critics who had said the “romance” seemed tagged on and unnecessary, but upon second viewing I disagreed.

Shania has at one point nobody she can relate to or confide in and, for all the gorgeous women who ogle him, Carl seems to lead a rather lonely existence, since none of the female athletes take an interest in him as a person and only regard him as eye-candy. Having been a runner himself, but having lost out on a career in sports because of injury, he has come to terms with his lot in life.

Why on earth did “critics” think it an unlikely romance? Because Shania comes from a council estate and Carl’s posh accent tells us he grew up in cosy Middle England? It seems natural that any young woman taking a real interest in him, especially one as lovely as Shania, should catch his eye – and possibly heart, but the film makers have left that mercifully open for us to speculate at the end of the film. For Shania, he’s not just a possible love interest, but also a welcome ally in an – to her – alien world.

I felt here was also a chance for Shania to see that even if she didn’t win her race, there were still amazing opportunities out there for her with regard to a career. Carl managed to find something he loved doing after his running career was over, so why shouldn’t Shania? In a world of big egos and limitless ambition Carl’s the voice of reason and a role model to all those, who failed at their first attempt, but didn’t give up and pursued simply a different dream instead.

Eventually, Shania gets to the World Athletics village (the film makers weren’t allowed to use the word Olympics, so they invented an international sporting event) and when she enters the stadium, sees the floodlights and hears the sounds of the various sweeping machines getting the tracks ready, she realises for the first time there’s every chance, she’ll get somewhere “better”, even if she hasn’t figured out yet, what that “better” actually is.

It is rare these days to find a film, a British one at that, which is uplifting and inspiring. The young cast did a brilliant job, particularly the girls. More films like this are needed to provide positive role models, especially for young women. Shania’s sister Tara (Tiana Benjamin) for example is the typical under-achiever who is even proud of being ignorant and lacking in ambition. How often have I come across young people in this country, whose moronic parents filled their heads with “you’re working class, what do you need an education for” rubbish?

Being proud of ignorance is exactly what’s wrong with Britain – and it’s gradually been getting worse over the 26.5 years that I’ve lived here. Striving for something, be it in sports, the arts, at school or at work, makes us a better person and being passionate about the things that matter to us makes us more attractive, too. It doesn’t mean you have to be a big star on telly or make millions, but reaching your potential and leading a fulfilled life rather than a half-life with regrets at what might have been.

I read somewhere that Leona Crichlow is the first black British actress to be the lead in a film – and that in itself tells us how far Britain still has to go to be a truly tolerant place and one where women from all parts of society are represented as a role model to aspire to and a world where women from all walks of life can recognise themselves in the films we see in the cinema and on TV.

Go and support British film by putting your bottom on a seat in your nearest cinema. Leona Crichlow, Lily James, Lorriane Burroughs, Dominique Tipper, Lashana Lynch, Noel Clarke (yep, the tin dog showing us he’s learned a lot of tricks Dr Who’s Matt Smith could only dream of), Rupert Graves, Bradley James and the wonderful Phil Davis, who ended up being my favourite character in the film, all star. Co-written by Noel Clarke and directed by Regan Hall, produced by Damian Jones.

Far more uplifting than Chariots of Fire (1981, directed by Hugh Hudson) ever was, Fast Girls will make you want to go out running, even if your knees are as knackered as mine and your ankles are about as useful as a cream cake in a storm or as reliable as a thief turned security guard at the Treasury.

English: Field of Dreams - Dyersville, Iowa - ...

English: Field of Dreams – Dyersville, Iowa – May 2006. Français : Terrain utilisé dans le film Jusqu’au bout du rêve, situé à Dyersville, dans l’Iowa. Photo prise en mai 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you build it, he will come…a quote from Field of Dreams (1989), that other truly uplifting sports movie I love, which makes wonderful use of rural locations in Iowa and sleepy, small towns along Ray Kinsella’s way (Kevin Costner). We need dreams to aspire to, otherwise what’s the point of living?

(source of animation: heathersanimations.com, Cardiff photographs copyright Maria Thermann, Noel Clarke and Field of Dreams pics by Wikipedia)