The liminal space of the motorway service station doesn’t garner much attention in the media. These buildings exist out of necessity rather than desire, allowing drivers to break their journey to use the loo or grab a quick bite to eat. In the school holidays they are populated by harried-looking parents with carsick kids and coachloads of teenagers returning from music festivals, but most of the time, their clientele are lorry drivers and other weary travellers just passing through. They are a sort of automotive limbo.
Shy, awkward Adam Muhammed (Faraz Ayub), works the night shift in a burger shop at Sky Peals Services, and likes the quiet. He deliberately takes the kitchen shifts so he can interact with as few people as possible, and is studiously ignoring the fact that his mum Donna (Claire Rushbrook) has sold the family home so she can move in with her new partner. One night, Adam receives a voicemail from his estranged father Hassan (Jeff Mirza) requesting that they meet up after years of silence. He says he has something to tell him. A few days later, Adam gets another call, this time from his Uncle Hamid (Simon Nagra). He tells him his father has died.
Stricken by guilt for not answering the phone and now preoccupied with unravelling the mystery of who his father was, Adam ignores the cajoling of his mother to move out of the now-empty house, and has to contend with the arrival of Jeff (Steve Oram), his aggressively chipper new manager at work who attempts to make Adam take a more people-oriented role. His only ally is another new employee, single mum Tara (Natalie Gavin), who warms to Adam despite his tendency to push people away if they attempt to get close to him.
Writer/director Moin Hussain’s feature debut is a quintessentially British film, flitting between the strange service station to the hushed, melancholy neighbourhoods of suburban Britain, complete with overcast skies and one memorable orange Volvo estate car (the same model my Mum had for most of my childhood, which displays a pleasing attention to detail). But beyond the sense of place that Sky Peals creates, both in its domestic settings and the strange, eerie space of Sky Peals services, Hussain captures the strangeness of being caught between two worlds, and not really feeling a part of either. Adam is distant from his mother despite their clear love for one another, and when he reconnects with his uncle and cousins, he struggles to be a part of their world, despite them welcoming him with open arms.
Wrapped into this is a nuanced neurodivergent-coded character; Adam is seen self-soothing at several points, and his difficulty connecting with other people and feelings of isolation are key traits among neurodivergent individuals (particularly those with autism, though it’s never actually revealed if Adam identifies as such). As such the film shows the difficulty of living with an undiagnosed neurodivergent condition, and how this can make one feel like an alien who has crash-landed on a strange and inhospitable planet. But despite Adam’s difficulties, it’s important to see that he is surrounded by good people who are patient with him (with the notable exception of his customers) and want to help him.
A scene in which Adam unpacks some of his late father’s belongings is particularly moving, as he attempts to recreate a version of the man he didn’t really know but feels a connection to all the same. Hussain’s script displays a real sense of empathy, deftly exploring the emotional toll of existing as a modern man who feels out of step with the world around him, not quite part of it despite desiring closeness.
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