Dustbin Baby Review

December 18, 2008 by  
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DUSTBIN BABY, BBC 1, Sunday 21st December 3.25pm

Over the years Jacqueline Wilson has manufactured a monopoly in writing bratty, foot-stomping teenagers, but for once this one has good reason.

As ignominious beginnings go, it’s a doozy. Shortly after giving birth, April Johnson’s mother decides she doesn’t want children anymore. Maybe she wants to focus on her career as a high-flying neurosurgeon? I hear you ask. Maybe she’s a devout Mormon who in a Sonia Jackson-style didn’t even know she was pregnant until she went for a number two and something decidedly bigger plopped out?

Well if we’re judging by her first move as a parent, it’s more likely to assume she’s Vicky Pollard. Because while there are a number of hospitals, orphanages and even Burger Kings about, she decides to cause the longest lasting psychological damage possible and dumps young April in a dustbin. And you thought Britney and Wacko’s kids had it bad.

Unsurprisingly this screws the little pup up a tiny bit and after a procession of different orphanages and sods-law scenarios, she finds herself under the care of Marian, a dowdy and caring, but ultimately disconnected museum tour guide.

April’s 14th birthday sparks an argument between the two that sees April bunk school and head off on a search into her past, pinballing her way through the defining moments of her upbringing. Marian soon twigs what’s going on and begins her own path to understand quite why and how April is like she is.

As a BBC movie, it draws certain clout, with drama stalwart Juliet Stevenson (Bend It Like Beckham, Mona Lisa Smile) performing admirably as Marian, a character who starts out as the Uber-Bree Van De Kamp, but who slowly softens to reveal a gentle and loving parent who just needs to extract the sizeable stick from her behind.

And the casting of April is perfect too, because they’ve managed to get (judging on past work alone) possibly the most annoying celluloid child of the past decade. Anyone else who had to sit through the teeth-grindingly awful cockney accent in ‘The Golden Compass’ will know what I mean, because none other than Lyra herself has nabbed the part.

To her credit, she’s nowhere near as annoying here as she was in that film and manages to show that when she’s forced to act with real people (and not giant CGI talking bears), she can emote with the subtlety needed for such a conflicted character.

From domestic abuse, adoption, suicide, burglary and attempted murder to transvestism (or maybe that’s just the unfortunate hormones of one teenage actress), Wilson’s searing portrayal of everyday realities make this far more than just a ‘kids’ film, crafting something that can be understood and appreciated by children and adults alike.

At an hour and a half long, it could have done with being trimmed by 30 minutes or so, and a large proportion of the subject matter isn’t exactly ‘deck the halls’ happy, but as teenage dramas go, it works.

Matt Risley