Kanchi Wichmann's Break My Fall is a film that promises more than it delivers, but there's a bracing honesty and immediacy about this debut feature that compensates for its uncertain moments. The film is an examination of a lesbian relationship as it slowly crumbles over the course of a few days in East London. Liza (Kat Redstone) and Sally (Sophie Anderson) live together and perform in the same band, but Liza's suspicions about her partner's fidelity – having discovered a letter from an old flame – are gnawing away at her. We first meet her sitting alone in their flat, looking at old videos of them together and then a video of sally with her German ex, and wallowing in self-doubt. Wichmann has a nice way of letting the tensions in the movie simmer and some of the most effective moments in Break My Fall are the quiet scenes between the central couple, filled with awkwardness and unspoken emotions.
When Wichmann is focusing on this pairing, Break My Fall is at its strongest and most involving. The well-cast leads complement each other superbly; they let us feel the deep affection that still exists between the two characters while making their sense of disillusionment and growing estrangement feel real. Their arguments grows increasingly hostile as the film progresses and even spill over into physical violence, but both actors deliver committed and convincing displays that show their actions emerging from a deep emotional place. They also share a sex scene that is painful to watch, but expertly performed and filmed in a vérité manner by Wichmann that doesn't allow us to back away from the raw heartache on show. Break My Fall is very much a two-hander, but Redstone deserves a special mention for her performance as Liza, an anxious and volatile character prone to extreme mood swings. So much of what Liza is going through is written on Redstone's interestingly androgynous features. It's a very impressive piece of acting.
Break My Fall is a little less impressive whenever it strays outside the boundaries of Liza and Sally's unravelling relationship. A couple of supporting characters occasionally enter into the picture, but they add nothing to the drama and the performances from Collin Clay Chace (as a gay friend of the couple) and Kai Brandon Ly (a sexually confused rent boy) are ropey. It feels like some scenes have been written by Wichmann for the sole purpose of padding out the narrative, but they only serve to sap much of the dramatic tension. When Liza and Sally's story is reaching its emotional peak, the last thing we need is a cutaway to a boring conversation between these two, or a rant from a butch lesbian who picks Liza up in a bar. Wichmann also has a weakness for repetitive party scenes in which her characters ingest large quantities of drink and drugs before vomiting, and all of this serves to make Break My Fall feel longer than it is.
Despite such caveats, Break My Fall is a commendable debut. Wichmann, shooting in Hackney, has a real sense of location and atmosphere, and she augments her visual style with some smart soundtrack choices. When it works, which it does more often than not, Break My Fall is an authentic and sometimes incisive portrait of a relationship slowly in decline. Wichmann will undoubtedly smooth out the deficiencies that occasionally hobble her first film with any future efforts, but the skill and heart of a filmmaker to watch is very much in evidence here.