I need to preface this review with a confession. As I sat down in a darkened, semi-full room ready to watch Theodore Melfi's St. Vincent, I was in the mindset to completely hate it. I'm not sure whether it was the terrible marketing that made the film look barely a step above a revoltingly sentimental made for TV movie, or whether I just wasn't in the right mood for this type of flick. Maybe it was a little of both. Rather unfairly, St. Vincent started on the back-foot with me; I was ready to rip it to shreds, baulk at its manipulating schmaltz and lament the end of the Bill Murray renaissance. It came as a surprise then when the film managed to completely win me over within the first ten minutes. Watching St Vincent I learned a very valuable lesson that I always manage to forget: never judge a book by its cover, or indeed, a film by its trailer.

The most surprising thing about St. Vincent is how dark it is. Not literally, in fact the cinematography is rather inspired; Melfi takes inspiration from imaginative lo-fi indies and creates a genuinely interesting filmic aesthetic. I mean that its dark in the way the film opens with Bill Murray having sex with a "lady of the night". Or that it's dark in the way it manages to drop an f-bomb in the first act. It's not that this adult direction is detrimental to the film, just that a sex joke in the opening of a 12a caught me by surprise. In fact the film's mean edge acts a perfect weight to balance out the schmaltzy sensibilities. For every Melissa McCarthy teary-eyed emotional confession, there's a counter-scene, something deliciously dark to balance it out. St. Vincent wrangles with the genre's inherent Hollywood sentimentality and pits it against an indie boundary-pushing sensibility so well that scenes rarely feel false. The emotion is there, and at times it can be a bit thick, but St. Vincent feels like a project people were genuinely passionate about, and so the drama is always deserved.

Like you'd expect, this passion resonates most notably in the performances of the absolutely stellar cast. Bill Murray headlines the proceedings in his Bill Murriest of Bill Murray roles. Part Raoul Duke and part Frank Barone, Murray's titular Vincent is as equally funny as he is offensive. His wry, deadpan delivery feels perfectly at home in this picture, while his aggressive bravado never comes across as too mean-spirited or uncomfortable to watch. Murray makes the character his own in ways no other actor would be capable of, and fully embodies a nuanced and intricate character that in other hands could have come across as flat and one-dimensional. However the biggest and most surprising performance comes from Jaeden Lieberhner in his début outing. Avoiding all the clichés and pitfalls of most child actors, Lieberhner manages to hold his own against Murray's veteran status while giving a funny, charming and heart-warming portrayal. Chris O'Dowd, Terrence Howard and Naomi Watts (adopting a ludicrous Russian accent) round off the cast in bit parts that don't justify their talent. But they're a welcome addition, and when your only criticism is that you wish they were given more to do, it can only be a sign that the entire cast did something right.

And it's absolutely imperative that Mefli nailed such a superb cast as St. Vincent relies so heavily on the audience investing in its characters. Thankfully, the film is written smart enough to avoid most of the shortcomings that come with these end of year dramatic character studies. Most importantly, no characters come across as archetypes or caricatures. Murray isn't a complete stuck-in-the-mud and McCarthy isn't a holier-than-thou mother. Each character has their own complexities and nuances that keeps them interesting and compelling for the entire run-time. The characters resonate a little deeper, and as a result, feel a little more human. It's actually how St. Vincent avoids a sickly dose of sentimentality. With no character becoming too preachy or allowing the film to become too indulgent in its themes, the picture only occasionally falters in its commitment to true-to-life characters. There's no perfect archetype that echoes the Big Lessons of the movie and there's no grand finale that culminates with the movie's Main Message. Each character has flaws and vices that keeps them interesting, but most importantly, relateably human.

St. Vincent is a surprising success that should have never needed to surprise me in the first place. A blisteringly funny and heart-warming script is brought to life by some fantastic performances and some really keen directing chops. While it has a bit of an identity crisis, undecided whether it would rather be an edgy indie or a Hollywood drama, St Vincent for the most part manages to blend these two juxtaposing genres fairly well. Not every plot beat makes sense and not everything is developed as well as it could be, but a firm sense of character and cinematography keeps St. Vincent an engrossing romp from beginning to end. It's nothing revolutionary, but then, not everything has to be. Oh, and it has one of the best and most satisfying credit sequences I've ever seen. Don't miss it.

The film was projected at the excellent Middlesbrough Cineworld.