This solid, low-key debut from Scott Graham shows great promise, but fails to satisfy as a compelling drama.
Even if Shell wasn't competing in the London Film Festival's newly created First Feature Competition, it wouldn't take you long to guess that it was a debut. That is, it shows plenty of promise for the future, but is a classic example of a potentially interesting filmmaker still in the process of locating his stylistic and ideological feet.
Scott Graham's wind-swept chamber drama focuses on Chloe Pirrie's eponymous, ironically named petrol-pump attendent whose station is based in a Highland hinterland. The customers they receive are few, but thankful.
She lives alone with monosyllabic, melancholic mechanic Pete (Joseph Mawle), a man she claims is her father, but it's clear from the off that their relationship is far more thorny than that. There are a few regular customers, one being a touchy-feely divorcee who regularly passes by and clearly holds a torch for Shell. There's also a guy of Shell's age who works at a nearby factory and often tries to coax her away from the station, but to no avail.
The film plays out as a glassy, bucolic mood piece which meshes together intense glares and awkward silences as a precursor to its inevitable third act reveal. But while it all looks, sounds and feels like its been put together with a lot of thought and good intention, and newcomer Pirrie makes for a suitably compelling lead, it just never manages to come alive.
Its militant subtly is, in the end, stifling and unnatural, and while the uncomfortable stand-offs work on their own terms, they do not add up to particularly convincing or humane portrait of human misery. It's a bit like Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse only with the nihilistic metaphorical depths replaced by grim and tawdry soap opera. Plus, the big climactic twist is beyond obvious.