The city heat shimmers in the slightly blown-up film, providing a nice visual correlation to the slightly vintage invocation of NYC street culture; there are moments built around swimming in rooftop water tanks (“the ghetto swimming pool”) and watching TV in a car with a power cord jacked into a streetlamp. The overflowing, contemporary dialogue, ear-tested and riffed on by the young actors, delineates a jabbing, respectful, somewhat complex platonic friendship (in one discussion of sexual etiquette, Sophia berates Malcolm for his macho dismissal of condoms; he backs off, says he just wishes they were better designed; her: “It wraps your dick. How you want it to wrap your dick better?”).
Perhaps inevitably, Leon occasionally panders to a one-sided view of privilege—he cuts on a throwaway line about white people never taking the stairs, like it’s a punchline and not a subtle reminder of an imperfectly formed worldview. But in most respects the film is fascinatingly open-ended about money and getting it. It’s a quest movie about (mostly) harmless juvenile offenders, so there’s the expected odes to shoplifting Krylon cans, and Hickson, with his bouncy physicality, makes a very charismatic turnstile jumper. But there’s something ugly and frightening in the way he scopes out a client’s room for stuff to grab, and that kind of casual, conditioned disrespect is evident in the way Bronx kids grab someone else’s bike (Sophia, mostly interacts with guys, is the only one who ever seems to even stop to justify herself). Malcolm and Sophia try to make their way through this world and get their names up, the looming context is the field named for Citibank.
The Thompson family—husband Tom and wife Sophie out in what the Brits call rural suburbia, daughters Kate and Jess in London with art-school friends and besotted flatmate Tim, played by Sharpe, also the screenwriter—were, we’re informed, arrested on suspicion of murder after it emerged that they had a buried, in the woods near the titular pond, a stranger who had died at their dinner table.
The film is scenes from that the fateful weekend, which begins when Tom Thompson, out walking the family’s three-legged dog Boy, meets wet-eyed Blake (for William?) and invites him over for tea. He stays: both Tom and wife Sophie initially seem grateful for someone to talk to, even if Blake is an awkward, dreamy depressive, who gets up in the middle of the night to leaf through the family photo albums.
The eloquent and suprising interviews, interspersed throughout, were a late addition to the project, according to a colleague who interviewed Sharpe and Kingsley: after shooting the weekend, the directors decided to have the actors who played the family stay in character to reflect upon the events, as talking heads. (When the film was released in Britain last fall, many reviews focused on the performance of Chris Langham as Tom Thompson; in his first acting job since his release from prison following a child pornography conviction, the longtime TV comic and original The Thick of It star does a slightly caricatured attempt at doofy-dad optimism, with a deeply wounded undercurrents.)
The interviews frame the dramatic scenes as reenactments, making Black Pond something like a formal companion to recent hybrid British doc The Arbor, which used actors to lip-synch the words of the interview subjects. Except that the central event here is, apparently, a complete fabrication, making the film a mockup of a fairly radical nonfiction film form.
In addition, there are animated interludes, a mid-film dream sequence, YouTube clips of the daughters playing terrible minimalist songs about their dog or about Tim, hedonistic indulgences romps through the insufficient consolations upper-middle-class status and a well-edited evocation of and unhappy marriage that could maybe be saved if the husband would only stop putting such a fatuously cheery brave face on it; TV comedy bits (Never Mind the Buzzcocks host Simon Amstell plays Tim’s terrible, juvenile psychiatrist, who insists upon calling him “Graham”), and much poetry. Sophie, once an aspiring poet, recites the melancholic nature poetry of John Clare, and the dialogue, especially Blake’s, is frequently beautifully lyrical: “We are misers of love, and we always know when we’ve been short-changed.” If the filmmakers’ one-off ideas are occasionally dropped into the film without any integration, or if their insights into the pain of life, love and everything are occasionally banal—well, that’s the price you pay gratefully for such a prodigious debut.