Marcus is a neglected and lonely 12-year-old boy living in a rough neighborhood. To escape his troubles, he’s fashioned himself a makeshift hideaway on the rooftop of a building, where he camps out and eludes the poverty and violence on the streets below, as well as the local bully Darren.
But then Darren’s girlfriend Trish — played by Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams in one of her earlier roles — joins Marcus on his roof. Looking for help, she becomes part of the quiet haven, and Marcus has always nursed a crush on her. But her presence draws in Darren, which threatens not just his private world, but his own safety.
Directed and produced by Nour Wazzi from a script by Anthony Attah, this gritty dramatic short is about a boy who gets a chance to grow closer to the girl he’s been pining for. But it’s also carving out a space for one’s self in a hostile world, and what one will do to stand up and defend it.
Structurally, it starts out on the roofs, taking time to construct Marcus’s world and character with a sense of reverie and poetry. Only as the film proceeds does it reveal just how difficult Marcus’s life is, with a growing sense of isolation and claustrophobia. We see the poverty he lives in, and the only familial presence in his life, his elderly grandfather, played by veteran British actor and CBE Earl Cameron.
Beyond the presence of Williams — who went on to gain prominence as the iconic warrior Arya Stark on Game of Thrones — the film is notable for its visual dynamism, capturing the the coiled energy of Marcus’s gritty neighborhood in rich, vivid cinematography and restless yet graceful camerawork. Every shot is designed with precision and power to draw viewers in deeper into the story, and their attention is held by the compelling performances, deft editing and a soulful, evocative score by David M. Saunders, available for listening here.
Actor Michael Matias brings Marcus to life with a tired wariness that covers up a yearning for connection or tenderness, which comes out when Trish arrives. The way he is anxious to please and care for her in basic ways not only shows his long-time crush on her, but also an almost anxious need for any kind of attention or affection in this world of scarcity and abandonment.
Williams radiates a street-wise toughness and down-to-earth appeal as Trish. Like Marcus, she’s a damaged, lonely soul in a damaged, lonely world, just trying to get by. She clearly has taken up with Darren to gain some sense of protection, and when the bully invades the rooftop haven to claim Trish back, Marcus’s fragile sense of escape is destroyed and his own safety endangered in the process.
“Up on the Roof” is both a chamber drama in its emotional intimacy and a thriller in its style and execution. It begins a beautifully constructed sense of being cloistered away from a difficult world, but as the film and Marcus reaches the point of decision, the visual bravura creates a gripping, suspenseful conclusion — one that lingers with the viewers well after the last moments, with its powerful yet fragile evocation of hope in the face of desperate odds.