Coming of age movies are a dime a dozen, and given the laws of supply and demand, the price is high. These frequent takes on the rites of passage — dealing with jerks, sampling various avenues to intoxication, and getting laid — often reduce this process to one long party, which admittedly provides good entertainment on occasion.
Among less “civilized” peoples, this process involves tests of skill and character, elements essential to the welfare of a society. In modern society, at all income levels, there are far more ways to arrest than encourage the maturation process. That’s what makes “This is England” so compelling.
In the film, 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) experiences a true test, where his character is forced to reveal itself.
It’s the early '80s and Shaun lives with his mother in England. It’s a working class neighborhood, where many are without work. Shaun has just lost his father, to whom he was close, killed during the war in the Falklands.
Small for his age, he’s a magnet for bullies, and though the feisty lad is more than game to take them all on, he doesn’t fare well in these encounters. This is not a good time for him; consumed with grief, confused and angry, without friends.
The role of Shaun is complex. Children of this age with the ability to relate to these emotions are not the stage-mom driven prissies, easily found in acting schools. The fact they can afford such a luxury, would suggest the opposite. The challenge to call up experiences from which you have been protected is near impossible for an actor, especially a child, so the producer went looking for the real McCoy and found one.
Tomas “Tommo” Turgoose was diagnosed with ADD, severe enough that his school limits him to one hour of class work a week. He was even rejected as an extra for the school play. With little structure in his life, he already understood what couldn’t be explained about the character Shaun, he was to portray.
Shaun possesses a lot of heart and intelligence, that while unappreciated by his peers, attracts the attention of a group of skinheads, older by seven or eight years. At this time, what was to become a feared and infamous group drawing worldwide attention, posed little threat to anyone. Identified by their shaved noggins, suspenders, and Doc Martens they are, for all intents and purposes, fairly tame.
These young adults, without much money, but certainly not homeless or starving, are most impoverished in terms of direction and motivation. They hang out and create mischief, seldom criminal, for the lack of any useful activity.
But to Shaun they offered everything he was missing: protection, company, and a sort of rebellious attitude consistent with prepubescent emotions. His mother, while a bit wary of this older group, is so relieved they have brought a smile to a face that recently had only shown misery.
And so begins Shawn’s introduction to the art of remaining distracted while going nowhere. What for his peers is a diversion from a future with little hope, is for him a great adventure, the character of which changes when a former friend of the group’s leader returns from prison, with a new attitude.
Preaching to vulnerable minds, he challenges the group to stand up for England against the foreigners who have invaded it, living on the dole, providing cheap labor and depriving true Englanders of jobs.
For any genuine coming of age, there must be a test, acalling forth of one's authenticity. For Shaun it involves the courage to look through his neediness for a clear read on his moral compass.
“This is England” is constructed with care. Like so many movies from across the pond, it moves a bit more slowly that its American counterparts, the drama more subtle, the action less often. It does however, if you are patient, deliver in a way you are likely to remember.
Lester Gray reviews movies for Examiner.com. Read reviews by other Examiner critics.