The summer of 1983 isn't shaping up to be much fun for 12-year-old Shaun. There's little to do in his northern English coastal town. His father has recently died, leaving the friendless Shaun with just his distracted mother. In a culture of youth tribes -- punks, New Romantics and neo-mods -- the pre-adolescent Shaun is a bona fide nobody, repeatedly persecuted and bullied for such crimes as wearing unfashionable trousers. But Shaun has a lucky break when he stumbles -- literally -- into a group of skinheads, who adopt him as their youthful mascot.
Shaun's painful coming-of-age forms the core of This Is England, Shane Meadows' period drama that combines a splash of early '80s pop-culture nostalgia (Rubik's cubes, aerobics, massively crimped hair) with its darker political and social corollaries such as rising unemployment, Thatcherism, fallout from the Falklands war and a ugly new brand of nationalism.
Shaun's newfound friends aren't as thuggish as they look: They're the more peaceful ska-music-loving skins, a mixed crew of lovable losers, girls and one black guy, led by cheerful and generous Woody (Joseph Gilgun). They quickly get Shaun kitted out -- Doc Martens, tight jeans held up with braces, Ben Sherman shirt and, of course, the requisite hairdo. While they enjoy boozing and the odd bit of victimless destruction (for unexplained reasons, the group dresses up in outlandish costumes before the wrecking spree, reminiscent of the highly stylized hooligans in A Clockwork Orange), they're decent sorts at heart. Witness their hilarious encounter with Shaun's mum, who turns up outraged over his new hairdo.
It's all a laugh -- even if Shaun is growing up a bit too fast -- until the gang's old mate resurfaces.
Combo's been inside for three years, and has been re-educated. Now, being a skinhead isn't a youthful pose and a fashion choice; it's an ethos, a mission, the rallying cry for the new nationalism that says "England for the English," to be enforced by the boot, if necessary.
Combo's arrival splits the group, leaving Shaun torn between the easy camaraderie of Woody and the seductive, balls-out intensity of Combo. Shaun harbors a deep hurt that Combo not only coincidently uncovers, but also assuages. Shaun chooses, and -- of course -- he chooses badly: He's 12 years old, aching to belong and to find meaning in a life that's suddenly grown frightening.
The 35-year-old writer-director Meadows has made a handful of films, of which only his 2002 mash-up of kitchen-sink dramedy and spaghetti Western, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, has been seen here theatrically; England, he has said, is based in part on his own youthful experiences.
To set the scene, Meadows uses archival clips of the news and various TV programs. But like his obvious forebears in similarly styled and themed films, directors Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, Meadows does much within the narrative to convey a specific time and place. Shaun's disaffected working-class milieu resonates from every scene shot in a shabby shopping district, pokey council housing and a greasy tearoom. Likewise, Meadows uses small scenes to suggest the pervasive gloominess and resentment that underscored the hearty flag-waving of Mrs. Thatcher's government.
Nothing that happens in England will come as much of a surprise to adult viewers, but as the story unfolds through Shaun's naive eyes it still packs some well-placed blows. Central to this is the breakout performance of Thomas Turgoose as Shaun. His grave little face registers pain, pride, embarrassment, anger, confusion and even a certain awkward tenderness, as he develops a crush on an equally maladjusted but considerably older girl. His bumbling longing to fit in with the older boys is perfectly articulated with too-loud laughter and parroted phrases.
A tip of the pork-pie hat also goes to actor Stephen Graham, who makes the frequently repellent Combo seem nearly as vulnerable. Meadows could have easily made the angry skinhead a stock character, a one-dimensional bogeyman. Instead, he sketches out Combo cleverly in a series of scenes, so that we, like the impressionable Shaun, see Combo as a jokester, a skilled manipulator, a leader, a sentimentalist, a self-deluded humanist and an unreflective man for whom life's myriad disappointments and hurts have alchemized into barely suppressed rage and displaced hatred. When the film builds to its inevitable decisive brutality, we know enough about Combo to shift anxiously to the edge of our seats during a seemingly innocuous bit of banter about family holidays.
The transition from a tender boyhood to the cold hard facts of life is a perennial subject of cinema -- Meadows even explicitly acknowledges the genre's touchstone, Truffaut's 1959 film The 400 Blows. This Is England, though anchored in the specifics of the director's own adolescence during the broody days of Thatcher's Britain, is nonetheless a worthy addition to the canon and a fine re-telling of this universal journey.
Starts Fri., Aug. 24. Harris