Violent, dark and bleak are three words that could be used to describe NEDS. But then so could humorous, multi-layered and poignant. The point is; NEDS is more than just a ‘bad boy done good’ story – it’s about the fight to get there. Whether the outcome is ‘good’ or not it seems, is secondary.
We start in Glasgow circa 1973 and John McGill is about to begin secondary school. Bright, yet self-assured, he’s surprised to learn that he won’t be joining the top achieving class and challenges the teachers over this – despite their still liberal use of corporal punishment – to which he discovers the reputation of his older brother has him tarred with the same brush. John’s brother is a NED (Non-Educated Delinquent) and with a drunk for a father and downtrodden mother, John is short on role models.
Watching the film, you’re rooting for John, which speaks volumes for the sincerity of the actors (Greg Forrest plays John aged 10 and Conor McCarron plays him as a 14 year-old). Most of us love an ‘underdog makes good’ tale, but things certainly go very bad at quite an alarming rate before we see any light at the end of the tunnel. The pivotal moment sees John quizzed by the mother of a new and more ‘well to do’ friend, who doesn’t hide her dismay at her son bringing home a kid from the wrong side of tracks. After being told not to come back to the house, John later seeks his revenge. Let’s just say it’s a bit more extreme than egging the front door. From this point onwards, John’s path of education and escaping the life of his brother becomes a descent into violent and mindless gang culture. Filled with rage, John’s mentality is “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, something that director Peter Mullan (who achieved critical acclaim in 2003 with The Magdalene Sisters) describes as a realisation of adolescence that has the power to consume.
As Mullan attests, there is a certain rose-tinted nostalgia when looking back to the ‘good old days’ of the seventies, and it was this frustration that formed the thinking behind NEDS. While recent ‘knife-led’ films such as Kidulthood hold up a mirror to the disturbing corners of today’s youth gangs, this film reminds you that adolescent violence is by no means a new phenomenon. And, ever true to life, in NEDS, an escape route is not necessarily as simple and clear cut as you would hope.
What’s good about it: Director Peter Mullan’s turn as John’s violent alcoholic father is as frightening as it is tragic. Succeeding to go beyond a one dimensional abusive character, there are moments of genuine pity when his story begins to unravel. The cast of unknowns also provide an authentic gang mentality, with the frantic fight scenes being particularly convincing. Early scenes in the film are also surprisingly comedic and provide some light relief, including Gary Lewis (aka Billy Elliot’s dad) as a headmaster waiting at the school door to chastise late pupils. Rather than play out another “two lashings on the palm” scene, his choice of punishment is to baffle latecomers with sarcasm and a piggyback ride into school.
What’s bad about it: John’s background and reasoning for inevitable decline tends to tick all of the clichés: poor family, abusive father and submissive mother. However, as the film progresses, there is some depth given to these circumstances. The story does begin to drag towards the end, with the violence almost losing its impact. And watch out for randomly placed dream/glue sniffing induced sequences, including John walking through a troupe of lions and dancing with a statue come-to-life Jesus.
Watch this is if you enjoyed:
This Is England, Kidulthood and Adulthood.