This Is England, from writer-director Shane Meadows, revolves around Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), a sullen 12-year-old trying to survive a grim, Midlands’ adolescence. It’s 1983 and Shaun’s working-class neighborhood is deep in the doldrums of the Thatcher-era recession. When schoolyard bullies stoop as low as to mention his father, a soldier recently killed in the Falklands War, Shaun explodes. After getting a beating from both the bully and the school’s headmaster, Shaun finds solace and much needed camaraderie with a pack of skinheads.
Taken under their wing, Shaun comes into his own—decked out in Ben Sherman shirts, suspenders and Doc Martens; given the de rigeur head shaving—much to the horror of his put upon mother (the fantastic Jo Hartley); even getting to first base with the gang’s sole New Romantic. All is well, until Combo (Stephen Graham), an older local skinhead, returns from a stint in prison. His racist motivations split the group in two, leaving Shaun—seduced by Combo’s tough talk and fatherly attentions—right in the middle.
Meadows’ film is strikingly nuanced in its portrayal of this coed gang of skinheads. The very term “skinhead,” especially stateside, is too often equated wholly with racism. In reality, the skinhead movement began as a stylistic, rather than an ideological, trend and was influenced heavily by Jamaican “rude boy” culture—a fact that even the dangerously racist Combo admits in the film.
Most impressive is the fact that the film, as dark as it gets, doesn’t get mired down in this thick stew of social issues. At its heart, the film isn’t about racism, rabid nationalism or the dark side of Thatcher’s Old Blighty: This Is England is about a lonely young boy. Turgoose—his round face and drooping eyes contrasting the ease with which he drops the F-bomb in front of his Mum—is thoroughly convincing.
A caveat—This Is England is currently being shown on cable On Demand, in conjunction with IFC. Mark your calendars, the DVD release date is set for November 3rd.