It's difficult to make hobbies involving countryside observation sexy. Trainspotting had to follow heroin addicts to sustain a feature-length runtime. But it's a challenge embraced by one film playing at this year's Edinburgh Film Festival. Pelican Blood, based on the cult novel of the same name, is all about bird watching – sort of – but it's still as sexually charged as an average episode of Skins.
How is this apparently impossible feat achieved? By avoiding the bird watching bit, mostly. Harry Treadaway is the twitcher we follow, but his curious hobby only rarely comes into a coming of age tale, which divides itself between Britain's expansive countryside and London's grey urban sprawl.
Treadaway plays Nikko with all the swagger of Liam Gallagher as he traipses across fields and through forests with a pair of friends to snag sightings of some 500 different species of bird – a number he's edging ever closer to. Their Yoko is Nikko's former squeeze, Stevie (Emma Booth), who prefers dark bedrooms and darker talk, of suicide and sex and animal rights. His friends think she's bad news, and all evidence suggests she is, but Nikko remains drawn to Stevie's sexual magnetism, and will follow her anywhere, even to their deaths. Meanwhile, his flagrant disregard for responsibility is irking his sister, who became the victim of her brother's cries for help when she walked in on his last suicide attempt and ended up with a knife in the arm.
The details may be different but the chemistry is the same as any number of films to have come out of the British industry in recent years. Cast some hot, teen actors, have them get all kinds of naked and set it to a soundtrack featuring whoever might be in the charts at any given moment.
Sometimes it works – see David Mackenzie's brilliant Hallam Foe, which opened Edinburgh a few years back – and mostly it doesn't. Cherrybomb took everyone's favourite Weasley, Rupert Grint, and turned him into a sex-crazed Northern Ireland layabout. Chatroom went to Cannes to make a sexual predator out of Kick-Ass star Aaron Johnson. Neither of them came close to finding the right tone (read our Chatroom review here). Pelican Blood has a little more style and decidedly more energy, but it's no more successful.
Its real trouble is that none of it ever feels authentic. Its characters exist in a hip, sexy fantasy world that doesn't resemble reality. Treadaway goes out of his way to be as obnoxious as possible, and while his performance is probably the best thing about the film, his character is tough to care about – a real issue as the film edges closer to its conclusion.
Indeed, its characters are so unlikable as to make the whole experience rather frustrating. As Nikko and Stevie flirt with thoughts of suicide and engage in ever more irritating attempts at acting out, it's less interesting to wonder what'll happen next and more compelling to hope that they'll get on with taking their own lives as quickly as possible.
Pelican Blood checks all of the boxes that this dangerously hip subgenre of British film demands, but the formula needs something more to make worthwhile cinema. What's disappointing about this film, though, is that the creation of worthwhile cinema was clearly never on the agenda.