Errant teenager Jamie (Black Panther's Letitia Wright) does not have a lot to look forward to in life. She is facing adulthood with no family, no prospects and - through her friendship with Leanne (Isabella Laughland) - the likelihood of prison time.
When her new care worker Kate (Shirley Henderson) hears her singing, she invites Jamie to join her in a local community choir. As Jamie embraces this new opportunity, Leanne feels her friend slipping away.
As the conflict between Leanne and Kate escalates, Jamie has to decide between her self-destructive friend and a chance at a different life...
Man, it is so hard to come up with a plot synopsis for this movie that does not sound like condescending claptrap. At face value, Urban Hymn looks like the kind of 'white saviour' BS we've had since Dangerous Minds: a white woman goes into the 'hood and helps redeem a minority kid by helping them to nurture a specific artistic talent.
To its credit, Urban Hymn does not push the 'music saves a poor black kid' narrative too hard. It ends up being more of a subplot that is folded into the more interesting story of two lonely people fighting over the protagonist's future.
It helps that the acting by the principal cast is terrific.
Shirley Henderson rarely gets a leading role, and her quiet, understated portrayal prevents Kate from coming off as a two-dimensional do-gooder. The script grounds Kate's interest in Jamie in a personal tragedy - the murder of her young son. While the movie only pays lip service to the idea that she is overstepping her role, and putting too much of herself into her job, Henderson gives the role a fragility and a lack of status that makes up for the limitations of the script. Henderson is not a commanding presence, which gives her fledgling rapport with Wright (Blank Panther!) a greater sense of verisimilitude. Their relationship feels like a slow-burn because of how lopsided their dynamic is.
As Jamie, Letitia Wright (Blank Panther!) is really good. She offsets Jamie's bravado with a nervy tension that makes her interactions with Henderson far more exciting than they probably read on the page. Their uneven power dynamic, and the way that power is re-distributed is really the best aspect of the film.
If there is a standout, it is Isabella Laughland as Leanne - she is completely believable as Jamie's anarchic bestie, and a frightening thug who will intimidate a care worker (basically every scene with Kate) or annihilate three prison inmates who get on her bad side (one of the film's standout scenes). As with Wright, there is a brittleness to Laughland's aggressive front - there is a fundamental loneliness and neediness to her relationship with Jamie that makes Leanne far more empathetic than she would be.
The movie's greatest strength is that every character's actions are grounded in believable motivations. Even Leanne, who commits some terrible acts during the film, never comes across as a two-dimensional heavy. There is a level of moral grey to Urban Hymn that prevents it from coming off as another 'redemption of a teen offender' movie.
Director Michael Caton-Jones has had an extremely varied career, oscillating between well-mounted dramas (Scandal, This Boy's Life) and big budget bollocks (his remake of The Jackal; Basic Instinct 2). His direction here is fine - the tone is fairly leaden, but there are occasional flashes of inspiration: The movie opens with Jamie and Leanne taking part in the 2011 student riots, which Caton-Jones shoots from the POV of a teen's cellphone camera; Leanne's one-woman assault on the prison toughs, a great scene which Caton-Jones covers in a single wide shot.
Overall, Urban Hymn plays all the familiar notes, but the well-judged lead performances help to elucidate ideas that the script only hints at.