Another old Film Focus review. I worked with Noel Clarke just before Christmas, so it's probably just as well I said nice things.
Reviewed 22 February 2006
Six messed up, West London teenagers, coping with the shitty hand life has dealt them. There’s vicious bullying at school, and little but petty crime, sex and drugs waiting outside. They’ll be lucky if they make it…
A brilliantly played and bold film, mixing pace and sharp wit with horrific social commentary, Kidulthood will be a highlight of the year.
There’d been some worry in the press about a film claimed to celebrate happy-slapping. Nor did a ‘City of God set in Ladbroke Grove’ bode well. But this is not a hip movie about asbos. Oxford Street and the Victorian terraces of west London, so iconic and beloved in other British movies, seem soulless and oppressive here. It’s up-to-the-minute and streetwise without ever being glamorous.
If the story and events feel familiar, it’s because they’re taken from real incidents, all-too often to be read in the papers. Keeping it real, the film nicely avoids too much melodrama – even the final confrontation which the whole thing’s been leading to is wisely under-glamorised and played.
There’s plenty of sex, violence and swearing throughout, but it’s soiled and everyday. There’s something grubbily matter-of-fact about the sex in particular. Instead of special and liberating, it’s all a bit rubbish and messed up. Like the poor kids themselves.
The film offers little in the way of escape for them. A glimpse of Paul Putner’s put-upon schoolteacher says it all – there’s little he can hope to change. Especially when the parents can’t see what’s going on under their noses. Katie’s parents wilfully ignore her bruises, while when Claire’s in real danger from Sam, her mum thinks she’s being cool mentioning condoms and leaving them to it. It’s a scene that’s both funny and harrowing.
Other grown-ups are even worse role models. Becky and Alisa are sexually abused – as the law would see it – by three men who clearly know better. Trife gets caught shoplifting by men who’ve already decided he’s guilty. Then there’s his terrifying uncle…
There are only two examples of ‘positive’ adults – one shop assistant who stands up for Trife, and another who lets Alisa feel pretty. Otherwise, they have to sort it out for themselves.
Alisa and Trife give the film its heart, and it’s through them we begin to see a way out from this cycle of abuse.
Alisa’s pregnancy makes her rethink priorities, and shows up the selfishness of her peers. At one point she snaps at her best friend Becky, ‘Do you ever think of anything buy yourself?’ Becky’s response, meant in all seriousness, is telling: ‘Yes! Clothes, shoes, money, sex… Wait – sex involves me though, doesn’t it?’
This is about money, and class and status. We see inside the well-off homes as well as the council flats, and crime and prostitution is done on the promise of clothes and widescreen TVs.
But Alisa and Trife’s ultimate breakthrough is not caring what others think of them. Unlike anyone else, they forgo the respect of their peers, and don’t care what lies Sam might tell about them.
The newcomer cast are all excellent, keeping it sharp and surprising, and really making us feel for them. No one should live what these kids do. Expect to see everyone in this again, and soon.
As Sam, Noel Clarke delivers a stunning performance as a fairly mundane bully, who shows his ‘strength’ by punishing girls and boys younger than him. Clarke’s script, based on his own life and experience, really sparkles and surprises as it deftly explores the myriad power relationships.
The film compares well with City of God, and also Crash (though that makes much more of race). But don’t be fooled into thinking this is a new phenomenon – Kidulthood more readily echoes A Clockwork Orange in its violence and street slang and music.
It’s just not science fiction any more. It’s not even fiction.