Despite the mess that is 2020, I feel like it’s been a fantastic year for lots of first-time directors. I’ve had the privilege of reviewing some class debuts over the last few months, and I’m very glad to say that Nuclear director Catherine Linstrum joins that long list.
Emilia Jones plays Emma, a quiet teenage girl who’s seen and experienced a lot in her young life. In the opening couple of minutes, we see her rescue her mother (Sienna Guillory) from a incredibly violent attack by Emma’s older half-brother (Oliver Coopersmith) in a forest, left for dead amongst the leaves.
Escaping in their car, a sexist slur scraped into the doors by the brother, Emma drives them both away from the danger only to crash into a bank of dirt down a country lane. Wandering in the darkness, they come across an empty holiday rental, located in the looming shadows of a disowned nuclear power plant.
In the days following, Emma’s mother rests up to heal her wounds, while Emma adventures into the areas surrounding the house and stumbles across a boy (George MacKay). Both intrigued by the other, they bond over their unusual families and living situations, with Emma dropping small clues as to why she and her mother have run so far away.
Yet, while Emma forms a new friendship, so does her mum. Walking around the creaky house, minding her bruises and napping a lot, she discovers a smartly dressed Japanese woman (Noriko Sakura) making tea in the kitchen – and she has an important message for the mother.
Distracted by her excitement about the boy, Emma’s never far from danger as the brother tracks her, much like an animal tracking a scent. With snippets of stories shared with the boy we know Emma’s not safe, but what happens if she fights back this time?
From the outset, Nuclear is tinged with extreme violence, making for uncomfortable viewing at times. And because of the story’s quieter moments – when we see Emma and her mother together, alone in the house, sharing secrets and reflecting on what they’ve been through – those moments really linger after the fact, leaving us permanently on edge as we disappear deeper into Emma’s past. Heed this as a trigger warning.
Jones is superb as our young lead. Both the actor and the character feel older than their years, worn down by the film’s heaviness and the nightmare to come. Unsuspectingly brave, she’ll do anything to protect her mum and we root for them both. This is contrasted brilliantly with our pure rage for Coopersmith’s brother, an unpredictable, thrashing, violent mess, brimming with anger from the instant the camera lands on him. We hate him and what he’s done to Emma – but will he get the comeuppance he deserves? Supported by Guillory and MacKay, Nuclear has a small but perfectly formed cast, carrying a sad, serious story.
Part-gritty British photorealism, part- melancholy fantasy, this is a film that will leave you wondering what you’ve just watched, but in a good way. Can we believe everything we saw? Is Emma all that she seems? Does our sympathy for her fill in the gaps we don’t initially see? Whatever the true meaning of the narrative, it’s one that will stay with you for a while.
Written and directed by Linstrum, Nuclear is a fantastic feature-length directorial debut, and is a promising start for things to come.