Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Awaydays is a paean to an age when art schools mattered and there was regular football violence. It mines the same cultural seams as Cass and Green Street, filtered through the developing punk scene of Merseyside. Based on Kevin Sampson's novel of the same name, it's effectively a tragic romance: one boy for football violence; another boy for the first. While it's enjoyable, even affecting in places, it's heavy handed and clumsy in others.

Nicky Bell is Paul Carty, a talented artist with money to spend, thanks to a comfortable job working for his uncle Bob. He's got a sister who idolises him, a dad who needs looking after now that their mother has died, and one goal in his life: to join 'the Pack', pristine football hooligans in green anoraks and Adidas sneakers. Carty is an angry young man, archetypally, even stereotypically so. We can tell he's in the past because of the ravages of Thatcher, because everybody smokes, because all the sex that he gets is unprotected.

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Carty discovers a way to join the Pack through Elvis (Liam Boyle). They're quite the pair, Elvis and Carty, one a reluctant hooligan who wishes he could escape into music and art, the other an under-achiever who dreams of belonging. It's an uncomfortable friendship, unrequited homoerotic passion on one side, dissolute ambitionlessness on the other. The balance between them is striking, tested again and again by others until the film's messy conclusion.

There's John, a married father of three who spends his weekends running the Pack, a camel-coated commander of a horde of hooligans. Stephen Graham, Combo in This Is England, turns in another excellent performance. Nicky Bell and Liam Boyle both have several TV credits to their names, and for their first major film roles they do manage to convince. Carty is a stoic enigma, Elvis an open book, at least to viewers; each gains much from the other, but not, it seems, enough. Crucial to the plot and the boys' eventual fate is Oliver Lee as Baby, a convincing thug among thugs. Carty's sister Jackie is well played by Samantha McCarthy, at once proud of and concerned by her brother's antics.

There's plenty of period detail, from Intercity trains with actual buffet cars to proto-Goths hanging around Probe records, with cigarettes and unprotected sex everywhere. The soundtrack suffers from the typical weakness of recent period drama, it's maybe a bit too good for the time. There's always some dross in the charts, but in hindsight it can be forgotten. When there's this much focus on the negatives: Thatcher's Britain; the fate of Tranmere Rovers; the search for rites of passage; the difficulties of coming of age, establishing one's place in society; with all those horrors, surely there's scope for some David Soul?

You could call Awaydays an issues movie. It's not quite kitchen-sink drama, perhaps everything but; there's violence, even murder, sex, maybe love, tragedy, comedy, heroin addiction, shoes. Sequences involving the Pack and their uniforms have a glamour to them, overly respectful stylisation of a subculture's fetishised affectations. At times it seems we might be viewing them through Carty's eye, but the whole film has a glossiness to it; not so much rose-tinted as polished. It doesn't quite fit, gives the whole picture an air of unreality. Perhaps it's Carty's artist's eye, or Elvis' romanticism, but it's enough to distance the whole film. Like clean peasants or a technical inaccuracy involving one of your interests, it's jarring, threatening suspension of disbelief. If it were a true story, then one might forgive, but as a work of fiction it becomes a little forced. Then there's that Ultravox track; it might be from 1977 but it sounds exactly like Franz Ferdinand. If you're not that familiar with the band before Midge Ure then it could surprise you.

Sampson has adapted this from his own script, and his respect for the source material means that some questions remain unanswered, some things remain missed. For the most part we've only the most basic clues to characters' motivations; it's not quite enough that our characters are looking for something, it would be helpful to know why. To leave audiences guessing has its merits, it's true, but here it tends more to frustration than art.

This is director Pat Holden's second feature, after his 2005 "sex comedy" The Long Weekend. His direction is relatively assured, though the soundtrack is at times a little heavy-handed. Of particular note is the use of the Ultravox track Young Savage, which appears at least twice. Joy Division make an appearance of sorts, and a few scenes appear repeated. While Sampson and Holden might be saying something about ruts and routine, seeing what appears to be exactly the same shot two or three times is jarring. Awaydays isn't bad, but it's nothing new, and sadly nothing special either.

Reviewed on: 26 Feb 2009
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Tragic romance, based on Kevin Sampson's book about Tranmere Rovers hooligans in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
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Director: Pat Holden

Writer: Kevin Sampson

Starring: Stephen Graham, Nicky Bell, Liam Boyle, Oliver Lee, Lee Battle, Sean Ward, Michael Ryan, Ian Puleston-Davies, Holly Grainger, Sacha Parkinson, Samantha McCarthy

Year: 2008

Runtime: 104 minutes

Country: UK

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