Karl Golden's Pelican Blood, a world premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival, is a fraught drama about youthful angst and rebelliousness set (very incongruously) in the world of birdwatching. The low-budget British film is shot in a freewheeling style that invokes memories of Danny Boyle's Trainspotting. Golden throws in hand-held camera work, frenetic scenes of the lead characters running away from security guards and dangling from the ledges of high-rise buildings, and plenty of music to pump up the intensity.
The screenplay, adapted from Cris Freddi's novel by Cris Cole, has a nice line in sardonic, fatalistic humour. The problem is that the premise is so wildly far-fetched. Audiences will surely struggle to accept the idea of the James Dean or Ian Curtis-like outsider who spends his spare time in an anorak with binoculars, hoping to catch a glimpse of some rare warbler or bird of prey.
The two main protagonists are wild, self-destructive types who've met through a suicide website. Nikko (Harry Treadaway) has an obsessive-compulsive personality. He is recovering from a traumatic incident in which he attempted to kill himself, but ended up hurting his sister. Stevie (Emma Booth) is an environmental campaigner who wants to save animals but is always ready to harm herself.
In Trainspotting, the characters took drugs. Here, they go on field trips. The film-makers' treatment of the birdwatching subculture is strictly tokenistic. They have no real interest in the world of the "twitchers" other than at a metaphorical level. This is a fitting hobby for a character who loves to draw up lists. It provides the pretext for some puns about "fit birds" and some unlikely rural action sequences in which Nikko tussles with poachers in the woods and stalks rivals, who are trying to steal rare birds' eggs.
Reflecting the mood swings in the two lead characters, the film's tone oscillates wildly. Upbeat moments of youthful high jinks that wouldn't look out of place in a romantic comedy are contrasted with some grim sequences. In their more facetious moments, the film-makers risk trivialising suicide by presenting it almost as if it's a lifestyle choice.
What saves Pelican Blood from seeming exploitative is the intensity and emotional complexity of the performances. In particular, Golden makes heavy demands on Treadaway, who could easily have been very irritating indeed in his role as a grief-stricken, list-making manic-depressive. Nikko looks like a member of some Britpop indie band, but between birdwatching expeditions, he works as a house cleaner, polishing and dusting clients' homes in a frenzied fashion. His behaviour is frequently obnoxious. Even so, Treadaway is able to make us care about Nikko and even to identify with him.
Pelican Blood doesn't really hang together. Loose ends abound. None the less, there is enough raw talent here to enable the film to take wing.
The Edinburgh Film Festival continues to 27 June (edfilmfest.org.uk)