You don't need the thick British accents (or the film's title, for that matter) to tip you off that this is no American production. "This Is England" is directed in the Ken Loach style by Shane Meadows, a rising star who lets his actors ad-lib their way through naturalistic scenes of everyday lower-middle-class existence in the 1980s U.K. This may grip some as daring indie filmmaking; others may be turned off by what they perceive as true 1980s BBC production values. Alas, the final product would hardly be helped by Spielberg and a cash infusion by Universal, though it does feature a precocious tyke hopefully coming of age in a dangerous world.
The kid is Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), a 12-year-old teased relentlessly by his classmates for out-of-date clothing and suffering from depression because of his father's death in the Falklands War. Shaun's world is uplifted by a chance run-in with a small band of surprisingly generous punk rockers led by Woody (Joe Gilgun), who take Shaun under their wing, get him a new punk style, haircut and a much older girlfriend. But before we can say "bollocks," the punk Utopia is upended by the arrival of Combo (Stephen Graham), who also admires Shaun for his unusual bravery, but wants to channel it to different ends. Combo, who gets a gut-wrenching portrayal from Graham, aspires to raise a small neo-Nazi army, which breaks the group into factions but leads only to anguishing moments of heavy-handed storytelling.
Punk is most noted for its stripped-down aesthetic, but "England" is loaded down with narrative frippery in the fashion of a ballad-spouting arena-rock group. Every time Meadows wants to show what Shaun is feeling, he resorts to limp visual symbolism. Is Shaun vulnerable? Cue dandelion. Melancholy? Cut to beach, skipping rocks. This is not the point of view of a pre-teen, but of a director struggling to figure out how to convey emotion to an audience. Rarely has attempted realism come to such pretentious ends. (NR) S