A strikingly earnest and true-to-life coming-of-age story examining the insidiousness of racism and othering, the directionlessness that comes with being left behind in some way, and the way that emptiness can be directed to resentment and animosity and be exploited, the way that racist subcultures thrive on the opportunities that directionlessness presents. The film isn’t a hackneyed morality tale, and all the characters are humanised very keenly, which is what makes parts of it all the more disturbing – this isn’t a simple morality tale about racism being bad, it’s a depressingly real look at how racism festers in the first place.
Director Shane Meadows does brilliant work portraying that in a very human, empathetic way that captures the social complexities of such issues, instead of retreating to the simplicity of only condemning them. The insidiousness, the dogwhistles, the social aspect, these all ring truer than just using blatant racism as shorthand for villainy. Scenes where bigots make others uncomfortable through being bigoted, yet most feel too taken aback and socially awkward to call them out, these feel painfully real, and the insidious way that bigotry becomes slowly more accepted when it’s not explicitly condemned is depressing.
The use of 16mm film and the setting of the film, 1983 in England, aesthetically and narratively tie the film to a particular time and place, but the story itself is hugely applicable and relevant to all sorts of other times and places, not just in how the film explores how people turn to particular subcultures, but also the difficult childhood of the protagonist Shaun.
All the cast do great work in making the film feel very real and grounded, but Thomas Turgoose as Shaun does particularly great work given his youth and lack of experience. Stephen Graham as Combo is definitely the standout, giving a fantastically layered performance, and Joseph Gilgun also excels as perhaps the closest thing the film has to a moral centre.
Fantastic, disturbing filmmaking, with a keen and grounded sense of humanity behind it. I give it four haircuts, and a pair of Doc Martens.