Director Nicholas Connor belongs to the Loachian school of filmmaking, which uses the medium as a way to tackle social issues and provoke discussion. For Cotton Wool, that issue is the families of stroke victims, especially young children, who have no choice but to become full-time carers. This desperately needed to be feature length, exceeding the mere 38 minutes it runs for, but it demonstrates that with the right funding, Connor could rise up to take the place of the ageing Ken Loach.
Rachel — played by Leanne Best —, a single mother living in the North of England, works tirelessly to support her two children. There is little time for introductions however and just a few minutes in she suffers a devastating stroke. The only person by her side is son Sam who is far too young to understand the gravity of what he is seeing and thinks his mum is trying to scare him. Best is sublime in this sequence, painting a horrifically realistic portrait of the real-time effects of a stroke.
The road to recovery is very slow and Rachel finds it difficult to cope initially. Wheelchair-bound and forced to use a tablet to communicate, she is relying on Sam to take care of her. Best continues to excel here, the frustration at her own helplessness is painfully clear. Her daughter Jennifer is resentful in having to take care of her mother, opting to go to a pub with her friends instead.
Sadly the short running time impacts this aspect of the film greatly. Had there been a handful more scenes fuelling the tension between mother and daughter both before and immediately after her stroke, Jennifer’s escape to the pub would have evoked far more emotion. A necessary escape from the stress of being the sudden head of the household rather than the petulance of a selfish young girl.
It is during this time that Rachel has another, smaller, stroke. Thankfully Sam, having been taught by a nurse a few days prior, knew exactly what to do. The awareness of Sam — played by seven-year-old Max Vento — at his young age is astonishing, calmly waiting the five minutes as he was told to before pressing the button for help.
When Jennifer comes home, she discovers that neglecting to care for her mother could have meant losing her entirely. This forces a change in mentality, and she tearfully apologises to her mother. The scenes of Jennifer coming home and of her apologising were fraught with emotion but again suffered in the rush to squeeze an 80-minute story into 40 minutes.
While Best was the standout performance in Cotton Wool, she was not alone in bringing Connor’s thought-provoking vision to life. Having previously worked on his last film Northern Lights, Gemma North and Katie Quinn once more delivered capable performances and Max Vento, at just 6 years old, perfectly encapsulated the innocence of a small child in the face of a traumatising situation.
With his next film, The Wall, already announced, Connor is hardly pausing for air before taking on his next challenge. Following the distinct climb in quality from Northern Lights, it feels only natural that The Wall would see his step up into feature-length filmmaking, a challenge I’m sure he would face with great vigour.