"This is England;" "Rocket Science"

Dennis Harvey and Anthony Kaufman August 7, 2007

“This Is England” — Shane Meadows’ finest directorial effort yet.

Writer-director Shane Meadows has carved a career from turning elements of his own autobiography into at least semi-commercial British narrative cinema. All his features to date have been released in the U.S., however briefly — from 1997’s “Twenty Four Seven” through “A Room for Romeo Brass,” “Once Upon a Time in the Midlands,” and the underseen “Dead Man’s Shoes,” which made an eye-blink theatrical appearance here last year, long after its completion.

The results have been uneven but never uninteresting. He frequently uses nonprofessional actors, or re-uses the same ones he’d originally “discovered.” His films are compared to those by Ken Loach or Mike Leigh but offer more conventional character/narrative definition than the former, more sympathetic portraiture of ordinary British life than the latter usually manages. Which is not to say these movies are flawless. In particular, “Dead Man’s Shoes” was Meadows’ best-yet — until its last reel suffered a seizure of ersatz Cosmic Significance.

“This Is England” is thus his best, because it works from start to finish as both melodrama and gritty 21st-century “kitchen-sink” realism.

It’s 1983 in a dismal Northern industrial town. The prior year’s Falklands war has left a bitter aftertaste. Thatcher is in full Tory power. Duran Duran top the charts. Charles and Diana are as yet the “fairy tale” royal romance. The disconnect between upper and lower levels of U.K. society, or its reflection in pop culture (hey! “Wham Rap!”) couldn’t be more drastic.

Gifted amateur Thomas Turgoose plays Shaun, a 12-year-old whose father has died in the concurrent Falklands war. He’s picked on by everyone at school until he’s “adopted” by a group of teenage skinheads led by Woody (Joe Gilgun), who takes a fatherly/older-brotherly interest in the miserable pubescent. Running with this “gang,” Shaun experiences 12-y.o. heaven: Trashing abandoned houses, fussed over by cool older kids, even getting a much-older girlfriend of sorts (Rosamund Hanson as heavily-punked-out “Smell,” who’s a full head taller than him). These skinheads aren’t even racist — their ranks include Jamaican-heritage Milky (Andrew Shim, Meadows’ Romeo Brass).

But everything changes once Woody’s erstwhile mate Combo (Stephen Graham) gets released from prison. Combo’s savvy enough to package his deep racism in psychologically appealing, patriotic garb (“We’re not Nazis, we are Nationalists!”), splitting the “gang” in two. Woody, Milky and others refuse to associate with this new leader’s thinly-veiled call to ethnic violence. But Shaun is naïve enough to be sucked in by Combo’s indoctrinating siren song.

Clearly this is headed nowhere pleasant. But engrossing “This Is England” avoids being a complete downer. It’s a more evenhanded fictive portrait of skinhead culture than movies have usually offered. Australia’s 1992 manic cult favorite “Romper Stomper” (starring a young Russell Crowe) represents the high end, alongside later U.S. features “The Believer” and “American X.” (Better than all these is Germany’s 1999 “Oi! Warning,” which does exist in an English-subtitled version. But good luck finding a copy.)

For sheer camp value, nothing beats the D-grade exploitation hysteria of 1988’s “Skinheads: The Second Coming of Hate,” in which nice road-tripping teens find themselves chased by murderously nutty skins — until they land in the lap of well-armed patriot hermit Chuck Connors. It’s the “Plan 9” of skinhead dramatizations compared to “This is England’s” relative “Citizen Kane.”

Blisters in the Sun: “Rocket Science” Blasts Off.

[SF360.org Editor’s note: This review of “Rocket Science” was first published by indieWIRE during the Sundance Film Festival in January. The film opens in the Bay Area this Friday.]

Quirky coming-of-age comic-dramas are not a rare species, especially at Sundance. But “Rocket Science,” Jeffrey Blitz’s narrative debut, bristles with sharply written dialogue, a fresh-faced cast and an offbeat tone somewhere between Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne and ’80s John Cusack movies.

Blitz made a name for himself a few years back with “Spellbound,” his conventional documentary about cute, nerdy kids fighting it out in the national spelling bee championships. For his first narrative effort, he proves himself to be just as adept at creating fictional characters with the same social hang-ups and over-achieving ambitions.

Employing a literary non-character narrator (that may ring all-too-familiar in the wake of “Little Children”), “Rocket Science” unfolds in the suburbs of New Jersey. Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson, a younger-looking Lou Taylor Pucci) is a smart, awkward kid plagued by stuttering. His parents have just separated, his brother is an OCD kleptomaniac (a terrifically menacing Vincent Piazza) and his after-school counselor can’t help him — “it’s a shame you’re not hyperactive,” he says in one of the film’s many pungent one-liners.

When debate team star Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick, far more credible than Reece Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick in “Election”) loses her partner Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D’Agosto), she sets out to find a replacement, inexplicably singling out sad-sack Hal one day on the bus. But she has her reasons: As she says, “deformed people have a hidden source of anger.” Tantalized by the prospects of his newfound potential and the attention of pretty Ginny, Hal joins her in the hopes of finally untangling his tongue for the big debate.

Blitz, thankfully, largely eschews the narrative cliches of the Big Competition that were the backbone of “Spellbound.” In “Rocket Science,” he is more interested in the sexual frustrations and lovelorn tantrums of his high-school-age protagonist. In one running comedic gag, the young Hal can’t escape his raging hormones because everywhere he turns he’s reminded of sex: Whether in the sounds of lovemaking coming from his mother and her new Korean boyfriend, a neighbor’s parents who are experts in the Kama Sutra, or the year’s debate-team theme: Teaching abstinence in schools, pro and against.

“Rocket Science” evokes teenage angst best with the help of the Violent Femmes, from the alterna-band’s masturbation ballad “Blister in the Sun” (“big hands, I know you’re the one”) to the use of “Kiss Off” to illustrate Hal’s emotional meltdown (“three three three for my heartache…”). The same scene affords the film’s distribution team from Picturehouse a worthy tagline alternative to carpe diem: “Throw me the cello.”

If it’s not “Vote Pedro,” that’s because “Rocket Science” is more sophisticated than “Napoleon Dynamite.” But it is troubling how many other movies from Sundance past that one can draw parallels to “Rocket Science” – the adolescent confusion of “The Squid and the Whale” or the skewered New Jersey setting of Zach Braff’s “Garden State” or the stunted suburban teen of “Thumbsucker.” Less poignant than the former and cleverer than the latter two, “Rocket Science” isn’t the most original or complex American film in years. But it’s humor and sincerity more than makes up for its familiar setting.