A silvery loch rests in the distance, surrounded by majestic mountains and infinite skies.

A scene of breathtaking beauty or a desolate spot in the middle of nowhere, those mountains like broken black teeth? One man's Highland splendour is another man's bleak desolation, and your emotional response to the vista that opens award-winning Shell might depend on whether you're a visitor to the region or a long-time resident.

Shell, a teenage girl who lives in a petrol station with her epileptic father, Pete, is very much the latter. She has been stuck in this remote corner all her life. Cars come and go but Shell remains, trapped as much by the landscape as by her relationship with her dependant father. It's a scenario that could only have been written by someone with personal experience of the north.

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"Scotland is a small country but there's a sense about the Highlands that feels massive, insurmountable, almost impossible to get out of somehow," says director Scott Graham. "At least that's how I felt when I was growing up."

Graham comes from the east coast, near Fraserburgh, but well remembers that strange combination of Highland romanticism and sublime isolation from caravan touring holidays as a child. Later, when living in Cathcart and writing the script that would become his second short film (the nucleus of this debut feature), he would pass locations like the one central to the story while travelling home to visit family.

"It's a four-hour journey, so you've got time to reflect on the people who are there and what their lives might be like," he explains. "I originally wanted to do a road movie in Scotland, as you can drive around the Highlands in a couple of days. Then I found myself more and more interested in the places you would stop at, so the short became kind of a roadside movie rather than a road movie."

Shot at the top of Little Loch Broom on the scenic route to Gairloch, Shell, in its feature-length format, also sticks to the roadside. The film, like its title character, never leaves the petrol station. This sense of emotional confinement, set against the wide expanses of landscape, gives the film more of a European mood than anything from a narrow British tradition. Graham cites American movies such as Badlands and Vanishing Point, and fellow Scottish directors Lynne Ramsay and Bill Douglas. I see in it something akin to the poetic intensity of Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Bruno Dumont and the Dardenne brothers.

Perhaps this is why Shell has, in the past year, become one of the most feted independent films on the festival circuit. Last month it was Best Film at the Turin Film Festival – a remarkable achievement for someone who didn't attend film school and names BBC series Moviedrome as his initiation into a wider world of cinema.

Graham's control of the film's steady pace is perfect. There's no melodrama: tensions arise naturally from the characters' strained relationship and the audience is given time to project their own emotional interpretations into the spaces within the story. The approach succeeds because of the casting of Joseph Mawle as Pete and, especially, newcomer Chloe Pirrie as Shell.

"I quite often have animals in my head while I'm writing characters," Graham admits. "With Shell it was a deer and with Pete it was a wounded bear. I saw Chloe in a short film called Solstice, and couldn't get her out of my head. Her expression and particularly her eyes reminded me of a deer. Because Shell says so little, I knew I needed an actor who worked not only physically – just the presence of them – but could also draw us in through their expression. Chloe stood out by being able to say so much without words."

Graham's praise for his star fits the film too: Shell, so deceptively spare on the surface, is as profoundly moving as anything you're likely to see in a cinema this year.

Shell, Glasgow Film Theatre, February 21, 8.45pm, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, February 22, 6.15pm, and Glasgow Film Theatre, February 24, 11am. Cinemas nationwide March 15