Oh how I love directorial debuts. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing a new director cut her teeth on a passion project, and when that new director is Olivier Award-winning playwright Jessica Swale the result is sure to be interesting.

While Summerland is perhaps not as fresh as it might’ve been, it remains a worthwhile watch all the same. The film stars Gemma Arterton as Alice, a crotchety and reclusive writer living on the southeast coast of England during World War II. Alice is something of a pariah-by-choice in her small village, with her standoffish demeanor driving a wedge between her and the residents of her town. In true cinematic fashion, Alice is assigned to take care of Frank (Lucas Bond), a young boy who’s been forced to evacuate London for the countryside.

In the movie’s first chapter, Alice is cold and impersonal to staggeringly unrealistic levels, but — surprise surprise — after a few days of caring for Frank, his childlike innocence brings out the good in her. This transformation is easy to see coming from a few miles away, but Arterton sells it all effectively enough so that it doesn’t come off as too trite.

The real meat of the film, however, is in its latter portion: once Alice warms to Frank, she begins to experience emotional vulnerability in a way that she hadn’t for many years, owing to an illicit relationship with a university classmate played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. The film’s exploration of how Alice deals with her unsuccessful attempt at love is remarkably compelling, as is the way Alice both uses and is challenged by Frank in the process of her coming to terms with her past.

Performances are solid across the board. No one particularly steals the show, but no one falls behind either. Both the writing and camerawork are a bit disappointingly by-the-numbers at first, but the simplicity of the films and the elegant turns of its plot manage to be genuinely affecting in a way many similar films are not. Arterton forces the audience to confront the emotional wreckage caused by not being able to control one’s own life, and the result is hard to look away from.

Summerland may not break new ground in the world of cinema, but Swale still manages to tell an affecting story with a command of the medium few first-time directors can pull off.