Keir O’Donnell‘s debut film, a sunny, good natured romantic heist thriller, does what all good debuts should do; acknowledge its influences while stamping its own personality. Marmalade, named for the pink-tressed, ultra-manic pixie dream girl who bewitches Joe Keery‘s slightly Forrest Gumpy sad sack, plays with the audience’s expectations and, at times patience, but offers a far more ambitious and rewarding experience than you think you’re going to get.

Baron (Keery) lands himself in prison following a bank robbery, instigated by the beautiful, free-spirited Marmalade (Camila Morrone). Once she’d sped into Baron’s podunk town in a squeal of tires and a spray of dust, the poor dumb boy had no chance. He tells his sorry tale to his cellmate Otis (Aldis Hodge), a tough con known for being a master of escaping from jail. Baron is willing to cut Otis in on a hefty wedge of cash stashed after the heist, he just wants to see his beloved again. It’s a standard story of a lovestruck boy too easily influenced by a wayward girl. Or is it?

At first, there’s simply way too much familiarity about Marmalade; film and characterMorrone’s an absolute whirlwind and it’s clear why Baron is instantly besotted with his tattooed, punky sociopath. But she too easily brings to mind other vibrant-haired sad boy magnets like Kate Winslet‘s Clementine and Mary Elizabeth Winstead‘s Ramona Flowers. The lovers-on-the-lam vibe is like a more benign Bonnie and Clyde or a gender-flipped Badlands. It’s all nicely put together with brisk editing and beautiful cinematography, but is otherwise pedestrian and places a talent like Aldis Hodge in a thankless role as the receptacle for Baron’s story.

It seems O’Donnell has set this up deliberately as come the second act the film opens up in unexpected and dynamic new directions. It would do the film a disservice to give away what they are, but it puts everything we’ve seen into a new and completely fresh light. Hodge gets far more of a chance to show what he can do, and Keery especially demonstrates far more of a range than we’ve expected beyond variations on his Stranger Things or Spree personas. It’s confident writing, sure that the audience will be on board enough to maintain interest until the sudden gear change, and beautifully played by the talented cast.

If O’Donnell could have done more to make the opening act fizz a little more, and didn’t rely so much on some pretty obvious symbolism to telegraph some of the underlying themes – jigsaw pieces and masks with multiple faces for instance – this would have been an absolute gem of a twisty crime and romance mashup. As it stands, Marmalade is still hugely enjoyable and indicates that there is much more to come from the talented Keir O’Donnell. Finding some way of teaming up again with the spectacular, mercurial Camila Morrone would be a strong directin to take.

Available on digital platforms from Mon 12 Feb 2024