Monday, September 10, 2007

Movies: This is England

This movie is really much too good to blog about. It's much too fun and tender and sickening and horrifying to express, in words, in this lazy venue. But in order to convince you to go see it, I'm going to try anyway.

In the best childhood performance I've seen in a long time (Abigail Breslin, eat your heart out), Thomas Turgoose is Shaun, a twelve-year-old boy living with his frizzy-haired, big-spectacled mum. His father went away to the Falklands war and died in combat, and every day at school, his classmates make fun of him because his trousers are too big. It's 1983.

On his walk home from school, after another fight, Shaun passes through a tunnel in which a small group of teenagers are hanging out. They all wear tight jeans, Doc Martins, and have very closely cropped hair. One of them—tall, super-skinny, looks like a manic candy cane—asks Shaun why he looks so glum, and invites him to sit down with them. He introduces himself as Woody and immediately starts cracking jokes about the boy who beat Shaun up, trying to make the boy laugh. It works, and Woody socially adopts Shaun into their little crew; he buys him a Ben Sherman shirt and has his girlfriend shave Shaun's head. The group goes traipsing through the countryside wearing silly outfits and go to an abandoned house, where they break everything they can with rocks, tools, and their fists: windows, walls, sinks, everything. It's exhilarating and delightful and horrible.

But it's all "innocent" fun, despite the barbs and the violence and the underage drinking; Shaun's mom is upset by the haircut, but lets her son continue to hang out with his new friends, and he even manages to land a punk-rock girlfriend twice his height, whose jaded exterior and naive interior combat each other when the two of them go into a shed together during a party, and she asks him, "Do you want to suck on my tits?" and he says "No," because he's never done it before and is afraid to do it wrong, and she admits that not many people have done it to her, either. All of this tenderness shifts, though, when Woody's old mate Combo crashes the party, with a leather-vested biker (sans bike) at his side. Combo's been in prison, and he and his friend appear easily twice the age of the rest of the crew, but we quickly see that Combo was once to Woody what Woody is now to Shaun. We see the confusion and horror and discomfort flitting across Woody's face as Combo launches into a vitriolic racist, violent, anti-Thatcher monologue, after using the term "nigger" in front of one of the crew's members (Milky, a Jamaican, raised British). Shaun jumps up to attack him (an absurd but potent intent) when Combo says that the Falklands war is meaningless, then explains, in a near-teary huff, that his dad died in the war. No one knew this, it seems, and Combo instantly becomes tender, but firm, explaining that Shaun's father died for nothing, and that it's now Shaun's responsibility to make that death mean something. The night ends on a nervous note.

Things get worse when Combo comes to the crew's hangout and demands that they each make a decision. He criticizes Woody as a snake in the grass who didn't rise to defend Milky when Combo made the mistake of insulting him, and implies that he will be taking over leadership of the crew, which divides in half as Woody and his girlfriend decide to leave, and some of the members (including Milky) follow. Shaun, though, stays, along with two others, because he was so moved (manipulated?) by Combo's speech about his dad.

Combo takes his new little posse to a skinhead meeting, where a speaker gives a rousing speech about what it means to be an Englishman. On the ride home, one of the kids makes the mistake of admitting he doesn't take it seriously, and Combo pulls him out of the car, beats him, and leaves him on the side of the rural road. The little crew next engages in various thuggish behaviors, including painting racist graffiti on walls, threatening Pakistani children, and robbing a small store owned by a (very culturally assimilated) Pakistani proprietor. Shaun glorifies in this madcap violence, while we in the audience begin to feel increasingly excited and uncomfortable.

And finally, the shit hits the fan. Combo runs into Milky and asks if he has a joint. Milky comes back to the house where he, Combo, the biker side-kick, another one of Combo's older buddies, and Shaun sit around, smoking a blunt. Combo asks Milky about his family, and Milky melts what threatens to be a tense situation with his big, stoned smile as he describes the family dinners they have at his house. Something about this monologue incites a (jealous) rage in Combo, though, who suddenly snaps and begins beating Milky. He beats him relentlessly. He beats him until he's an immobile bloody pulp that doesn't seem to be breathing. All this time, Shaun is screaming and writhing while the leather-vested biker (who hasn't changed his outfit the whole movie) holds him down, laughing in a sickness-inducing way at the spectacle.

An epilogue conversation between Shaun and his mum over a portrait of his dad tells us that Milky isn't dead and that Shaun, for all of the trauma he has recently been subjected to, will probably be okay. We don't find out whether he sees the connection between Combo's anti-"Paki" rants and the violence dealt to Milky, but we hope that his loss of innocence has meant a loss of naivete. And we hope that he'll be okay.

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