Zebra Crossing

Zebra Crossing


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

On a deserted beach a teenage boy lies absolutely still. It’s pretty clear Something Very Bad has just happened. As his voiceover begins we see a tear start in his eye. As it falls, it burns.

The opening scene of Holland’s visceral and unrelenting debut sets the scene for what follows. We’re back in the tower blocks, lads, and any sign of emotion or sensitivity is a potential weakness, liable to lead to even more pain.

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I have to admit to a certain sense of déjà vu as the film unfolds and we track back to the earlier life of Justin (Turnbull). There have been quite a few ‘news from the streets’ films lately (Kidulthood and Bullet Boy spring to mind) and the genre’s beginning to acquire a few over-familiar elements. The frenetic editing; the in-your-face-violence and swearing; the occasional ‘poetic’ shot of an urban landscape; and the sense that even a desperate and dangerous life can seem exhilarating when you’re in the moment. All are present and correct here.

What lifts Zebra Crossing out of the run-of the-mill are some fantastic performances, some striking black-and-white camerawork and a little more attention to character development than is the norm. The initial scenes of Justin and his mates instigating a homophobic attack, as well as being unsettlingly realistic, show that the protagonist isn’t simply a misunderstood sensitive soul yearning to break free, but a hardened, potentially very dangerous young man.

Yet as the film unfolds it becomes clear that much of Justin’s bravado is a shield against the world. His home life consists of an abusive father and a seriously ill sister (O’Reilly) to whom he is devoted. It’s a grim gruelling existence and the only relief from it is fighting or getting high with his three best mates. Still, he’s intelligent enough to see their flaws all too clearly. Billy (Treslove) is weak and easily led; Sean (White) is a party animal unable to see beyond the next hit; and Tommy (Wakeham) is a psychotic loose cannon, permanently strung out on the adrenaline rush of violence and capable of veering from matey bonhomie to threats and insults in a moment.

Needless to say, the quartet are constantly in trouble with the police (depicted here as just a bigger bunch of local boys relishing the opportunity for a scrap approved by the law) and rival gangs competing for dominance of the desolate acres between the blocks.

It all has a raw, guerrilla realism to it. But the relative ease of shooting a lot of film cheaply means that Zebra Crossing is in dire need of a good editor. It’s making plenty of valid points about the squalor and lack of opportunity in modern urban life, but it tends to make them over and over again.

There’s not much relief from the constant atmosphere of misery and danger. What there is comes mainly from Justin’s visits to a nearby church, where he talks to a mentor who may or may not be imaginary, and tries to draw some peace and calm to set against the turmoil of his world. With, it has to be said, not much success. When events begin to spiral out of control and Justin has to choose between his friends and some sort of a future, it’s not the most surprising plot development ever. But the climax does build up a head of steam and manages to be genuinely moving too.

The film’s picked up a hatful of awards and Holland’s directing does show a lot or flair and promise, often finding a striking image or unusual angle in his stark cityscapes, where life is defined by the concrete towers, the drug-deal underpasses and the distinctly non-gastropubs. He coaxes excellent performances from his young cast, too, especially Turnbull and the scarily believable Wakeham. The sense of divided, troubled souls issued with their problems at birth harks back to earlier British youth classics like Quadrophenia and even the original Brighton Rock. For all his faults, Justin (like all the characters) deserves a way out and you’re rooting for him to find one, while at the same time being increasingly aware it may be impossible.

Generally, a thumbs-up, then, but definitely not everyone’s cup of tea – and unlikely to be plundered for a Welcome To London ad campaign in the Olympic run-up.

Reviewed on: 25 Jan 2011
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Zebra Crossing packshot
A young man growing up in south London tries to escape from a life of crime and violence.
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Director: Samuel Holland

Writer: Samuel Holland

Starring: Lee Turnbull, Greg Wakeman, Aaron White

Year: 2008

Runtime: 140 minutes

Country: UK


Raindance 2008

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