A boy's dilemma amidst the call of the skinheads
Young people are all over this week's movie releases. The children in "Daddy Day Camp" are the standard wisecracking Hollywood cartoons, barely recognizable as human beings. The documentary "Summercamp!" shows kids as they are, with the attendant contradictions of real life.
Then there's Shane Meadows's "This Is England": Childhood scraped free of nostalgia. Set in a nameless coastal town in 1983, this brutal but intensely observed drama about a 12-year-old boy drawn to the skinhead movement has a clarity of purpose to go with its crystalline sense of time, place, and culpability.
It also has a central performance so vivid it hurts. As the runty, slack-faced Shaun Fields, Thomas Turgoose looks ready to kick the world in its shins. You can see in his eyes the football yobbo Shaun might become; you can also see a fierce intelligence and a child's desperate yearning for family.
This is Maggie Thatcher's England -- the opening credits are a live-wire assault of period news footage set to Toots and the Maytals' "54-46 That's My Number" -- and the excellent adventure that was the Falklands War has recently ground to a halt, taking Shaun's father with it. Taunted by schoolmates for his hand-me-down clothes, the boy is rescued by an older group of teenagers, their leader, a gangling bloke named Woody (Joe Gilgun), assuming a protective stance toward the little bulldog. Shaun is soon the group mascot and dressed in the proper uniform: crisp Ben Sherman shirt, suspenders, a shaved scalp. Mom (Jo Hartley) won't buy him the Doc Martens, but she's at least glad someone's looking after him.
"This Is England" takes pains to remind us there were two types of skinhead, only one of which was virulently racist. Woody and his gang are layabouts who indulge in the occasional burst of vandalism, but they're rigorously neutral on the subject of skin color, worshiping ska and reggae music and including a Jamaican, Milky (Andrew Shim), among their number. They're inclusive rather than exclusive.
With the appearance of Woody's old friend, a charismatic ex-con named Combo (Stephen Graham), the tone shifts from scrappy kindheartedness to anger and fear; you can feel the film's grip tightening. Combo has learned many things in prison, mostly that South Asian immigrants have taken jobs away from good, solid Englishmen like himself. He wants action; he wants commitment; he wants to bash some Pakis. Most of the group get up and walk away in embarrassment. It's with a shock that we realize Shaun is still at Combo's side.
What can a boy really understand, other than that the angriest answer can sometimes seem the best answer by default? As Shaun follows his new mentor to National Front meetings at countryside pubs and into violent confrontations with corner-shop proprietors, director Meadows lays bare the cauldron of resentment and disenfranchisement that was Thatcher's Great Britain. Combo and his followers make the classic fascist mistake of defining themselves through misplaced hatred, but it's not a done deal in Shaun's case. Every waking second is a war for the boy's soul.
The film's apparently a personal matter for Meadows, who's fictionalizing his own adolescence and whose filmmaking benefits from the honesty. As its title implies, "This Is England" isn't a hyperstylized head-trip a la "Trainspotting" but a straightforward calling to account. Period tunes like "Tainted Love" and "Come on Eileen" hover in the background instead of pushing forward with heavily edited force. The accents are almost incomprehensibly thick, four-letter words thudding like concussion bombs, and this is the way these people talk: frustration rendered as common speech.
Meadows has previously made a series of gritty, whimsical, and very British dramas -- "A Room for Romeo Brass" (1999) and the lesser "Once Upon a Time in the Midlands" (2002) have received the widest distribution in the United States, which still isn't saying much -- but here he finally seems to come into his own.
There's a gutter pride taken in how aggressively Shaun confronts the world, but there's also a blunt, no-nonsense analysis of where the kid goes wrong, and you know he knows it, too. At times the hero seems like a tiny old man, physically less mature than the towering skinhead girl (Rosamund Hanson) he fiddles with, but emotionally far savvier.
As "This Is England" barrels toward its conclusion, though, Shaun does something unexpected: He grows younger. Cracks appear in Combo's bravado, too, and Graham lets us see the neediness that can propel a hateful man. The film ends by staring down the audience as a cover version of the Smiths' "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" graces the final credits. It's a gentle send-off to a blistering experience, but it soothes no one, and the plea in its title lingers like tear gas.