Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"The humour and emotion are so sharp you might not feel them at the time, but Mullan's film cuts deep and leaves its mark."

NEDS is a term all too familiar to those of us who live in Scotland, as it has come to stand for (and brand) kids who cause trouble as Non-Educated Delinquents. Here, Mullan suggests it isn't a lack of education that leads to the problems, but society as a whole, as we watch the John McGill (Gregg Forest) of 1972, turn into his teenage equivalent (Conor McCarron), swapping bookishness for brutality along the way. Questions beat loudly at the heart of this emotionally challenging, well-written and surprisingly funny drama regarding the assumptions that are made about kids based on their social background. Mullan suggests it is often not a child's unwillingness to learn that causes them to drop-out but society's unwillingness to teach them anything other than hard knocks. And just because his film is set in the Seventies, doesn't mean it isn't relevant to the gang landscape that faces many of today's teens.

Mullan explores the baby steps that lead a rather sweet, nervous kid with a love of books, who relies on his wild-child gang-steeped brother (Joe Szula) to fight his corner, to turn into a confused and brooding teen, whose only real outlet is violence. It's a slippery slope so gradual that it's hard to see the incline - and yet, Mullan creates a sense that it was lying in wait for him from the day he was born. This is not to say that the writer/director is interested in painting pictures of evil teachers, conspiring to scupper John's chances. Quite the contrary, in fact, as one or two of them - performed by the great and the good of Scottish cinema, including David Mckay and Steven Robertson - are shown to be broadly sympathetic, if harried. But when John finds his class and circumstances are against him, the friendship and camaraderie of the local gang come to seem like a lifeline.

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Mullan - who freely admits some of the events in the film happened to him, although it is not autobiographical - captures the period perfectly and doesn't let his grim assessment of circumstances for many get in the way of some extremely good situational humour. Irony, is always close to hand, from John seeking refuge from a gang in what turns out to be the home of one of his rivals to the soundtrack choice of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band's version of Cheek To Cheek as the accompaniment to a gang fight.

These are 'real' gangs and violence is only one facet of what they offer. Mullan says he was briefly in a gang himself, if only as "a tourist", but the filmmaker knows what he is talking about and shows that the gang's allure lies chiefly not in the chance to stick the boot into someone you hate, but in the laughter and kinship that comes from hanging out with a crowd who'll stick up for you. This is a world where chasing after a rival gang or being chased yourself is as much of a thrill as catching up with them and beating them up - and a much more likely outcome. And it's a place in which implicit violence, just like those invisible class barriers, can cause as much damage as a knife slash to the cheek.

Both types of brutality are explored here. The unseen domestic sort - carrying echoes of Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives - sees Mullan as John's father, little more than a brooding and frightening presence at the foot of the stairs demanding his wife, "Get down here right now, cow". Outside the house, meanwhile, there is the bloody slash and bash of the gangs. But Mullan never loses sight of John's humanity and even when he is at his most monstrous, McCarron retains a suprising level of audience sympathy for the little boy who has been lost.

Fully deserving of the Golden Shell at last year's San Sebastian Film Festival and outrageously overlooked by this year's BAFTA long list, this is the best British film to be released in cinemas so far this year. The humour and emotion are so sharp you might not feel them at the time, but Mullan's film cuts deep and leaves its mark.

Reviewed on: 15 Jan 2011
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Story of a boy who finds growing up in Glasgow in the Seventies is tough.
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Director: Peter Mullan

Writer: Peter Mullan

Starring: Connor McCarron, Gregg Forest, Peter Mullan, Louise Goodall, Marianna Palka, Peter Mullan, Gary Lewis, Joe Szula, David McKay, Steven Robertson

Year: 2010

Runtime: 124 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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