Rocky is a young London teenager, but her life is anything but youthful and carefree. She is responsible for caring for her invalid father, doing laundry and cooking for him, and lives in a rough neighborhood where she is harassed on the street going to and from the laundromat.
But at the laundromat one day, she meets the more outgoing, confident Sasha, developing a fascination — and perhaps a bit of a crush — on her. It’s the only bright spot in an increasingly oppressive life. But Rocky’s fascination plays itself out in unexpected ways, leading to volatile and dangerous consequences.
Written and directed by James Arden, this taut, pared-down short drama captures the claustrophobic world of a young woman weighed down by the pressures of life. Told with thoughtful visual acuity, the narrative carefully catalogs the indignities of Rocky’s life, until it builds to a visceral, charged breaking point.
The story begins with ominous shots of objects and surroundings, layered over with the sounds of muffled shouting. The juxtaposition of stillness and violence unfurls into more fleshed-out squalor that Rocky must navigate. She is grabbed at on the street and leered at by local boys as she goes about her strict, humdrum routine.
But worst of all is the sense of latent menace she faces at home, by a father that demands dinner, criticizes her cooking and barely seems to notice her — or that she’s grown-up. And when he does, his gaze is unsettling, as is the way he dominates the frames he shares with Rocky, exerting a dark shadow even at the margins of the image.
Within this milieu — captured in muddled, moody colors and lighting that draws out the dinginess in Rocky’s life — Rocky is growing up, questioning and exploring her identity like any other teenager. Meeting the charismatic Sasha is part of that process, and the storytelling weaves their mutual captivation with great delicacy, starting with stolen glances that build to a seemingly more intimate connection.
Actor Elisha Applebaum as Rocky captures the wondrousness of budding desire as well as how Rocky must stuff down her feelings and sense of self to cope with her life. Her infatuation with Sasha — played with great spirit by actor Eleanor Grace — offers her an island of escape in a hard life. But when the two parts of Rocky’s life unexpectedly collide, Rocky can only hold in her trauma for so long.
Endlessly compelling and darkly disquieting, “Leopard” is a coming-of-age story in many ways. But this particular initiation into adulthood is marked by aggression and the constant threat of violence. It ends, though, on a grace note of hope — a tiny gesture of connection amidst chaos and terror. It may not exactly change Rocky’s life, but perhaps help her get through the next chapter of a grim, difficult world.