Tuesday, February 23, 2016

This is England

3/4

Starring: Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Joseph Gilgun, Jo Hartley, Andrew Shim, Rosamund Hanson

Rated R for Strong Racist Violence and Language

There is an autobiographical element to this story.  British director Shane Meadows drew upon events from his own childhood to tell this story.  That's probably why it feels so authentic.  The film's strongest aspect is getting inside the head of a lonely, picked on adolescent.  Understanding him is crucial for this movie to work.

England, 1983.  12-year-old Shaun (Turgoose) is an unhappy child.  His father was killed in the Falklands War, his mother (Hartley) doesn't understand him, and he is bullied at school.  Luck comes his way when he encounters a group of skinheads hanging out under a bridge.  Although he is initially suspicious of their motives, he eventually warms up to them, especially Woody (Gilgun), and they unofficially adopt him.  Finally, Shaun has what he always wanted: friends.  At least for a while.  Then an old chum of theirs returns from prison.  His name is Combo (Graham), and he's gotten out of the joint filled with rage and racism.  Most of the others are strong enough to leave, but after Combo mentions Shaun's father, he has a way into the kid's psyche.

Typically, when one says the term "skinhead," they think of Derek Vinyard from "American History X:" muscle-bound lunatics tattooed with swastikas and screaming racist epithets.  While that's generally the case now, it wasn't always so.  Around the time that this film took place, they were closer to hipsters than racists.  In fact, the first half of the film has a distinct vibe that reminded me of "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."  However, once Combo enters the picture, the fantasy comes into contact with a hard dose of reality.

Part of the reason the film works is because it contains several strong performances.  Leading the pack is screen neophyte Thomas Turgoose.  Turgoose is exceptional, playing the character with bluster and vulnerability.  He's a hothead, but that's partly because he's in so much pain.  How would you feel if you lost your father and people had the audacity to bully you about it?  But he has a heart, even after he unwisely decides to follow Combo.  Speaking of, Stephen Graham is very good as Combo.  Combo is an animal, filled to the brim with rage and pent-up frustration.  In Shaun, he finds validation, both for his racism and for his own insecurities.  The true scene-stealer, however, is Joseph Gilgun, who plays the friendly Woody.  Woody is the kind of older friend/brother we all wish we had.  His nature, which despite the pranks and mischief, is essentially good, becomes a presence in and of itself.  Ironically, Gilgun played the most interesting villain in "Lockout" six years later.

Unfortunately, the film missteps during the most crucial scene in the film: the seduction of the innocent.  When Combo convinces Shaun to follow him instead of Woody, it happens too quickly (in terms of the running time and within the film's timeline).  I understood why Shaun would follow him intellectually, but I didn't believe it.  It happens too fast and too easily.  Shaun is a smart kid with a big heart.  Surely it would take more than one comment about his dad to convince him to follow the psychotic Combo rather than the one boy who has shown him kindness.  This transition is so weak that it limits the effectiveness of the rest of the film.

Nevertheless, the film contains many moments of power, and is riveting (if tough) viewing.  The English accents are very thick and there are no optional subtitles, but you get the gist of what they're saying, at least.

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