It's 1983, in the interminably gray council estates of the Midlands, and runty 12-year Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is in a dire spot. His father won't be coming back from the Falklands War; at school, everyone else has adopted the uniforms of their respective clans - goths, mods, New Romantics - while he stands alone in raggedy bellbottoms. The only suggestion of respite from his outcast status comes on the last day of school, when he runs afoul of a local gang of skinheads, led by the perceptive and charismatic Woody (Joe Gilgun) - in short order, Shaun's scalp is shorn and he's outfitted in boots and braces, a part of something at last.
The skinhead culture that Shaun is initiated into will be utterly foreign to viewers reared on Geraldo Rivera specials - though the movement's since become synonymous with racist thuggery, Woody's crew is multiethnic, with no political agenda beyond getting blazed and listening to Toots and the Maytalls. Period specificities aside, the film illustrates an aspect of adolescence I've rarely seen better explored: how subculture membership can foster a sense of belonging in young people unsuited to the school-sponsored avenues of self-identification, or can get a kid laid who'd otherwise be hopeless.
What's best in this film, which looks backward with oft-mortifying clarity, are scenes of piquant embarrassment that could only come from sharp emotional recall: petulant Shaun having his mother take him shopping for Doc Martens (they only come in adult sizes); his sexual fumblings with a harlequin-painted punkette (just perfect Rosamund Hanson), at once funny, ghoulish, erotic, and tender. The movie has a few bad habits - over-articulating points about social pecking order that are perfectly clear within the flow of a scene, relying too heavily on pop-scored interludes to speed along the development of relationships - but director Shane Meadows' instincts with the camera are true; he knows where it needs to be to unobtrusively capture the mood of a room.
Things get heavy in a hurry, which is to be expected of a movie with a title as grandly presuming as "This Is England" - an old chum, Combo (Stephen Graham), comes back from penitentiary, and he's immediately at odds with the laidback way Woody runs the gang, starting in straightaway with racially inflammatory National Front rhetoric that instills Shaun with a much-needed sense of mission. The surrogate father-son relationship that develops between the two works, revolving around the memory of how flattering it is to be young and have an actual adult seem to respect and pay attention to you, without the mature understanding that most proper adult role models should have something better to do than be talking to 12-year-olds (what sight is more melancholy than a 30-year-old with a Mohawk?). Temperamentally, I prefer the movie of little wry moments to the larger, self-consciously significant story it comes to exist within, but to Meadows's great credit he never allows his observation of skinhead life to approach the moronic, adrenal bombast of the thematically similar "Romper Stomper" or "American History X." The drama grows organically from the narrative, and the characters always seem consistent to themselves rather than obeying the dictates of a script. If the denouement seems familiar, such honesty is still immensely refreshing.
Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.