This Is England

Stephen Graham needs a big, fat hug.

Stephen Graham needs a big, fat hug.

(IFC) Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Jo Hartley, Andrew Shim, Vicky McClure, Joe Gilgun, Rosamund Hanson, Andrew Ellis, Perry Benson. Directed by Shane Meadow

In July 1983, England stands at a crossroads. Embroiled in a war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, suffering massive unemployment, the young people of the UK are looking for answers that are not forthcoming from their government or traditional institutions.

Shaun (Turgoose) is an unhappy 12-year-old boy whose father recently died in the war. When a classmate cracks a cruel joke, Shaun gets into a fight with him, forcing his mum (Hartley) to the school to bail him out. On his way home, he meets a group of skinheads led by Woody (Gilgun), who sympathizes with his plight. In turn, Shaun finds a group of misfits much like himself, angry and frustrated at the way things are.

Shaun finds acceptance within this group and at first things go well. He cuts his hair short and dresses like his new friends – a sort of rite of passage for him. He even develops a romantic relationship with Smell (Hanson), a New Wave girl who hangs with the group. Things change, however, when Combo (Graham) returns to the group after a stint in jail. He is far more politically oriented, blaming many of his country’s troubles on the immigrants from Pakistan, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, particularly those with darker skins. His beliefs split the group in two. Although Woody wants Shaun in his group, Shaun feels more kinship with Combo.

Through Combo’s now-racist skinhead faction, Shaun gets to express the anger and frustration he feels, and finds scapegoats for his fury. While things never get violent, there’s always violence lurking just below the surface. When Combo severely beats up Milky (Shim), the only black member of Woody’s skinhead group, Shaun’s eyes get opened to the consequences of hatred.

Some of this material is semi-autobiographical. Writer/director Meadow (Shane/Shaun, get it?) grew up in a similar environment and many of the incidents were anecdotal to his own childhood. Given the economic climate here in America, it is a little easier for us to relate to what was going on in England 25 years ago then it probably was three years ago when this movie was first released in the UK.

Graham is incendiary as Combo. He is not really a bad guy, but he has allowed hate to take him over, and that hatred drives him. When it is finally unleashed on Milky, he feels genuine remorse afterwards, horrified and sickened that he was so brutal on a friend. Turgoose does a capable job as Shaun. The movie really turns on having a decent actor in the role, and Turgoose manages to make Shaun a believable character without being overly annoying.

The soundtrack is authentic classic ska, rocksteady and reggae, the kinds of things skinheads actually listened to back in the day. As the group moves into more aggressive behaviors, so the music gets more aggressive. It’s hard to be hateful and violent with a Bob Marley soundtrack, after all.

This is a movie about the evolution of a gang from a benign, harmless group of misfits who hang out because they don’t want to fit in into a violent, racist group looking to enforce their dominance through violence and intimidation. In some ways, it reminded me of the soccer hooligan movie Green Street Hooligans although that movie was less concerned with the evolution of violence more so than the effect of violence on its members. In many ways, This Is England is more horrifying though less visceral; even though there are fewer acts of violence depicted in the movie than in Green Street Hooligans, the effect of watching a fairly normal 12-year-old boy metamorphose into a hateful, prejudiced kid is all the more chilling because it’s the kind of thing that happens every day.

WHY RENT THIS: Graham and Turgoose are both special in their roles. The evolution of the skinheads from benign social outlet into hate-mongering racists is chilling to watch.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is very UK-centric and those who are not interested in the world outside their own may have little fondness for this.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is blue throughout, and there are some racially motivated hate crimes depicted. There is also some brief sexuality between a young kid and a somewhat older girl.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Turgoose had never acted professionally before and demand five pounds to audition; he had been banned from his school play for disruptive behavior. The film is dedicated to his mother, who died shortly before filming.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Sleepwalking

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