Paul is a young kid living in a rough housing project in London. He spends most of his days wandering around and getting into trouble, mouthing off at neighbors. He has a hard-edged attitude, a smart mouth and a spiky personality that’s not afraid to get scrappy, whether it’s with his big brother or neighbors in his small world.
By all accounts, Paul seems like a “problem child,” or even a social delinquent in training. But as he wanders around, Paul discovers strange beautiful moments of connection and lyricism — and gives himself a chance to be the young boy he is inside, rather than the one that the world sees.
Writer-director Richard Gorodecky’s luminous short drama is a hidden jewel of a character portrait that upends expectations about growing up a “problem child” in a rough part of town.
Paul is easy to dismiss and pigeonhole as a product of his environment, and the first part of the film catalogs his character in this light. He is, as the title mentions, a big pain with a bad attitude. The restless camerawork and focus on Paul’s roughly urban environs — he’s often framed behind the fence’s bars or overwhelmed by the urban features — seems to underscore its influence in shaping him, giving the first part of the film a gritty, urban feel.
But as the film proceeds, the storytelling slowly unfurls a different side of Paul, as he has quiet moments of exploration and wonderment that reveal him to be as sensitive, imaginative and vulnerable as any other child in the world. The sound design here emphasizes the natural world he finds himself in, particularly with water and birds, and the black-and-white cinematography endows Paul’s experience with an idyllic halo, emphasizing beauty, captivation and contemplation. The film and story gives Paul space to breathe and live, and allows him to temporarily escape the burden of bad expectations.
Young actor Badger Skelton is able to navigate both ends of Paul’s characterization, with a beautifully responsive, naturalistic performance that feels spontaneous and unforced. An encounter with a fisherman — played by actor Tommy Jessop — reveals that Paul is perfectly capable of openness, kindness and curiosity, especially when he’s treated as just another kid, rather than looked at as a pest or problem. Together they share a moment of both peace and excitement that flips the initial construction of Paul’s character around, revealing him as just another kid capable of childlike wonder and innocence.
It’s not until the last part of “Little Shit” that Paul’s fuller story and background are revealed, delineating his difficulties at home and the emotional burdens he carries. It’s an intelligently structured reveal that plays with the audience’s own expectations about Paul, and part of the film’s larger project to deepen compassion for children who seem difficult but are truly vulnerable and in need of care and tenderness underneath it all.
So many children can summon protective surfaces that are harder, tougher and more grown-up than they actually are. But sadly, sometimes this is all the world sees, and it becomes easy to put kids in a box that eventually will shape their still-developing sense of self. The duality of Paul’s experience, as captured in this expressionistic, lyrical short, shows children are still children, full of vulnerability but also great potential, if properly tended to — and deserving of deeper empathy and understanding, no matter what.