THE BOY AT THE BACK OF THE CLASS
The Boy At The Back Of The Class is an adventure-filled drama about friendship, family, and the refugee crisis. It’s the story of nine-and-three-quarter year-old ALEXA and her determination to make her new friend, AHMET (a Syrian refugee), feel welcome and reunite him with his family. It’s a story of grief and loss, displacement and belonging, a celebration of courage and difference, a tale of kindness that proves just how far little things really can go.
When we first meet ALEXA, it’s the end of the summer holidays and, unlike lots of kids, she’s itching for the new term to begin. Having caught us up on life at home in her “penthouse” (the top floor flat of the council estate she lives in with her mum, NUR), her endless bafflement at how confusing grown-ups can be (like when they say “don’t break your promises,” promise to check-in after her dad died, but then disappear) and a lifetime’s obsession with Tintin (as well as her dream to become a reporter, solve mysteries, and fight baddies herself one day), it’s back to school she goes for the first day of term. There’s the old and familiar (her best friends, JOSIE, MICHAEL and TOM, as well as school bully, BRENDAN) and then there’s their new teacher, MRS KHAN – but it’s on the third Tuesday after school re-starts that the real adventure begins…
When headteacher, MRS SANDERS, knocks on the door one morning, and introduces the new boy, AHMET, who’s going to sit at the back of her class, Alexa has questions:
WHO IS THE BOY AT THE BACK OF THE CLASS?
HOW CAN I MAKE THE BOY AT THE BACK OF THE CLASS MY FRIEND?
Just like her favourite reporter, Tintin, Alexa knows asking questions and looking for answers is the best way to solve a mystery. And so, she quickly makes it her mission to befriend the new kid and find out who he is. As rumours and suspicions about Ahmet abound – He must be deaf, that’s why he can’t speak! He has a contagious disease! He’s super-rich, so has to stay undercover to avoid kidnap! – Alexa attempts, through various methods and means, to make contact with Ahmet and find the truth out herself. Having made some headway, it’s when she overhears two grown-ups referring to him as a “refugee,” that her whole world shifts, that the next piece of the puzzle clicks into place, and that – unbeknownst to Alexa – she’s about to get in over her head…
The first half of our story will tread much-beloved territory: the plight of the outsiders (Alexa, Ahmet and her friends) against the familiar playground antagonists, Brendan-the-Bully and MR IRONS (our very own Miss Trunchball). Indeed, in the vein of Matilda and Wonder, this notably contained fight for justice and fairness will be the initial driving force behind the drama. But halfway through the film, when Alexa learns that the border gates are due to close in nine days’ time and that, with this closure, Ahmet’s parents won’t ever be allowed to enter the country, meaning Ahmet might never see his mum and dad again, Alexa’s (rescue) mission shifts to something far grander, far scarier, and far more important:
HOW CAN I MAKE SURE THE GATES DON’T CLOSE?
HOW CAN I FIND AHMET’S FAMILY?
With their teachers reassuring her and her friends with platitudes that they don’t have to worry, that all the clever people are doing the very best they can, Alexa, Tom, Michael and Josie decide they won’t take “no” for an answer, that they’ll have to leave the schoolyard, and come up against adults and the “real world” themselves. As they soon discover, this is easier said than done – and so, with time running out, Alexa comes up with an Emergency Plan: involving a persuasive note, some teabags, some shortbread biscuits and… a trip to see the Queen.
But the outside world doesn’t quite work how they thought it did (oh, if only it did) and, soon enough, they find themselves at the centre of a story in which the police, the media, and even important government officials are involved…
REFERENCES & TONE:
Our story will be both timeless and contemporary, heightened and social realist; think of the whimsy and charm of Roald Dahl, with an extra dash of substance and weight. It will have all the warmth, humour and high-jinx of Paddington and Matilda, the authenticity and profundity of Wonder, but instead of being in the affluent hub of Notting Hill, or in a brownstone in Brooklyn, our film will be set in a council flat on the outskirts of London, and beyond the state school playground, it will be dealing with one of the biggest global humanitarian crises of our time. This is what will set this film apart: the combination of the beloved hallmarks of our favourite family films – the antics, the friendships, the triumphs, and the hope – with diverse faces, diverse settings, and a political beating heart, all of which are rarely given the space, or treated this way, on-screen.
FORMAT & STRUCTURE:
FLASH FORWARD: the film will begin with a flash forward – Alexa, eyes closed, lying horizontal. Then, she opens her eyes and sees… a blur of flashing blue lights, police cars everywhere, and Tom with a police officer, crying. The words, “right, let’s get her in the ambulance” will be heard, and we’ll see Alexa’s holding a note in her hand. Then, her voiceover will begin, ALEXA: “Grown-ups can be weird…” Framing the story with this moment – the moment Alexa wakes up outside Buckingham Palace having tried to pass her note intended for the Queen to one of the Coldstream Guards – will elevate a sense of mystery, as we’ll wonder what events led her here and, indeed, where even is she? This moment will also encapsulate one of the most profound themes of the film, how – from the perspective of an innocent child – adults don’t half over-complicate and muddy things.
NARRATION: our story will be narrated by Alexa, as though the events (up until the Emergency Plan) have already happened. As well as providing a humorous commentary, as we see the absurdity of the adult world from a child’s perspective, the omniscience of her narration will allow her to foreshadow events to come and build up a sense of anticipation and suspense. After Alexa wakes up outside Buckingham Palace, she’ll no longer be so in control of her story; and this moment of “awakening” – both literal and metaphorical – will mark a kind of coming-of-age for her. As the grown-up world encroaches, she’ll come to realise the gravity of her actions, and will be forced to get her head around some baffling adult reactions. With this transition – from innocence to experience – her narration will lose its all-knowing footing and it/she will have to grapple with her new perception of the world instead.
ANIMATION: the film will be predominantly live-action, punctuated with moments of animation. As it’s a story very much told through the eyes of a child – a child with a particularly vivid imagination – we want to capture a sense of how a nine-and-three-quarter year-old perceives the world on-screen. When Ahmet tells his story in class and Mrs Khan mentions how hard it is “to try and put all the missing pieces of your life back together,” Alexa wonders what pieces he might still be missing, and imagines how hard it would be to do a jigsaw if the pieces aren’t all there. When Alexa has a nightmare that’s so scary it wakes her up: of drifting on a piece of wood in the middle of the sea, a girl – who’s about to be swallowed by a whale – crying, and her dad shouting for help from a sinking boat, these are moments that can be captured in animation, texturing the fabric – and her understanding – of the world.
But as well as illuminating moments of pathos, or fear for Alexa, animation will also be used for lightness and humour too. For example, when she imagines her dad dancing with the Queen, or when she tries to understand euphemistic phrases adults use, such as when Mrs Khan says, “Some people just can’t see past the end of their own noses!” and Alexa imagines it a little too literally…
ALEXA: a highly imaginative, somewhat precocious, Indonesian-Austrian British-born nine-and-three-quarter year-old. Think a British Dora the Explorer for 2021. It will be through her eyes that we’ll see the story and understand the world. As a youngster who’s grown up without siblings, in a single-parent, working-class household, she’s resourceful, creative, and can be painfully insightful beyond her years. Having lost her dad when she was six, she’s well-acquainted with the confusing, sometimes overwhelming emotions that come with loss and grief, and with an intrinsic sense of justice (and a pinch of mischief) – à la Matilda – she’s the perfect companion to empathise with Ahmet’s plight.
AHMET: a Syrian refugee who’s been forced to flee his country and, in Alexa’s eyes, the bravest person she’s ever known. A badass on the football pitch, a connoisseur of growing plants, and a deeply loyal friend, he’s our window into pomegranates, kibbeh, and foreign languages, as well as our mirror to reflect back on the idiosyncrasies of our own culture. Kind, lionhearted (and lion-eyed too), he’s living proof of the friends we might miss out on if we let ourselves be governed by fear, and evidence that we should open our hearts and minds up to difference instead.
ALEXA’S MUM (NUR): a librarian during the week and a carer on Saturdays, she’s the cleverest person Alexa knows. Preferring to conceal her woes from her daughter, that doesn’t mean she’s not struggling: a single mum, a widow, and with no time to make new friends, since Alexa’s dad died there’ve been few moments she would say she’s been truly happy. In fact, for the past four years, she hasn’t allowed herself to do the one thing that used to give her and her husband such joy: putting his record player on and dancing. But something about her daughter’s bravery, her determination, and her unadulterated kindness unlocks a box she hadn’t known needed unlocking, and she finds a way to dance again…