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Simon Read [Film Festival 07.24.12] United Kingdom drama

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Small Creatures is the micro-budgeted first time feature from director Martin Wallace and concerns a group of teenage boys living in an estate outside of Liverpool; their bleak lives, disinterest in education and eventual, inevitable descent into drugs and gang violence. Very much in the tradition of recent films like Fish Tank and This Is England but without the same sense of social realism or grit, it is nonetheless a well produced little drama with some fine performances by young actors even if the heavy use of visual metaphors puts it more in line with 'nice-fantasy-realist' films. It's less 'Kes' and more 'A Kid for Two Farthings', so to speak.

Coggie (Michael Coventry) is a fourteen year-old kid who lives with his mum and big sister in a small flat on a housing estate in modern Britain. His life revolves around the schoolyard, his two mates Steve and Macca, and the occasional solitary trip to a motorway layby, where he sneaks into a forest and spends time checking out the insect life in a rather sweet natured way which hints at his true innocence. After a particularly nasty fight in the playground Coggie and his mum are called into school and a counselor asks a few searching questions: the boy stays pretty much mute. Soon the school year ends and Summer break follows, during which time Coggie discovers that boredom leads to mischief, especially when self-appointed leader Steve takes charge of the little trio. The boys doss around and smoke weed, take cash in exchange for performing some naughty graffiti from an actual gang of older boys who were too bored or busy to daub it themselves, and eventually set their sites on a curiously wimpy older kid called David, who owns a cheap hatchback car and agrees to take them on a joyride. Throughout their misadventures 'Ste' becomes increasingly aggressive and influenced by local hoods and alcohol, until Coggie basically has to decide if the friendship's worth all this trouble for a little estate status, or if he should just stick to the simple, good life, amongst the 'small creatures' in his secret forest.

One of the things that makes Small Creatures work, or at least help raise it above what could be another after-school drama, is that Coggie isn't just another good kid gone bad, but rather a rounded and sympathetic young man with pressures from all around and nobody to rely on except for himself. An early scene shows the boy inflicting bloody self-harm, and later we see his mother reach out, deliberately and clumsily, in an obvious way which belies her usual level of concern for her son. Coggie's reaction speaks volumes, "No, you're okay." As things get more fraught and trouble brews, Coggie has to essentially decide whether to continue dabbling in mindless kids stuff without any thought for the consequences, or become an adult before his time; his guidance based only on common sense and his own inherent morals. I was kind of glad that there was no sign of a wise old janitor or friendly grandparent to guide him, and that the polite counsellor is all but forgotten, rather than paying a visit for a spot of moral boosting - such a stereotyped plot contrivance has been done to death and it was refreshing to see a character having to weight decisions on their own and take sides without any obvious Angel/Devil on the shoulder gimmick.

The film isn't perfect, far from it in fact as the third act becomes disjointed, confusing and riddled with plot-holes along the lines of, "Well why doesn't he just..." But I fell for this film, for often remarkable performances from its teenage cast (Tom Pauline as Steve particularly throws himself into the role of a little psycho bastard), the assured direction and even just simple cinematic scenery, such as watching the lads get picturesquely stoned on the estate greens, or Coggie observing his caged hamster with a sad reflection in his eyes. Martin Wallace shows lots of promise as a writer/director of good looking drama. Sure, he's no Shane Meadows or Andrea Arnold, but I'll keep an eye out for more in the hope that he takes a few more risks next time.

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