(director/writer: Lynne Ramsay; cinematographer: Alwin Kuchler; editor: Lucia Zucchetti; cast: William Eadie (James), Tommy Flanagan (Da), Mandy Matthews (Ma), Lynne Ramsay, Jr. (Anne Marie), Michelle Stewart (Ellen), Leanne Mullen (Margaret Anne), John Miller (Kenny), Jackie Quinn (Mrs. Quinn); Runtime: 94; BBC Films/Holy Cow Films; 1999-UK)

“A film of high quality.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A gritty and realistic tale about a troubled adolescent boy of 12, James (Eadie), growing up in the slums of Glasgow who dreams of escaping. Lynne Ramsay’s brilliant debut film as director (she also wrote the screenplay) is set around a tenement block of project houses during a garbage strike in the mid-’70s where the streets are lined with bags of garbage, as she captures in a significant way the pathos and squalor of slum life.

The film opens as an omen to death is presented, as a pre-adolescent boy named Ryan is spinning his whole body around while he is wrapped around a lace window curtain that resembles a shroud; the scene shifts from slo-mo to real time as his mother angrily pulls him out of the curtain, and he runs outside to play in the muddy canal–which is filled with vermin, but is the nearest thing to a park the neighborhood kids have to play in.

Ryan meets James there and they get into a playful spat, and James accidentally drowns him and runs away. This sets the lugubrious tone for the film, as this secret haunts him as he retreats into a world of solitude, bitter friendships, a relationship with an older girl who is the neighborhood slut, and a strange relationship with his family. He deems that the answer to his problem, is to escape from the neighborhood by moving into a new home.

To make matters worse, as far as his guilt, the dead boy’s mother (Jackie Quinn) gives him her son’s new shoes because he reminds her of her son.

The film paints a grim picture of his family, though it’s certainly not the worst family to raise kids. His father (Flanagan) is usually drunk or watching TV, which he’s more interested in than raising his kids; his earnest but glum mother (Matthews), who remembers when she used to dance joyfully to pop music but is now overwhelmed by her family problems; there’s his secretive older sister (Stewart) who treats him with contempt; and, his bratty younger sister, Ann Marie (Lynne Ramsay, Jr.), who will drop a dime on him to her daddy without changing her innocent childlike expression. The family is rooted in poverty and are trapped by their lack of ambition and education.

The film’s most tender moment comes when James seeks comfort more than sex with the neighborhood slut, Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen). He seems sated to just clean the lice out of her hair and take a bath with her. They imitate in their encounter what they think a contented married couple should be like.

This impressive debut film for Ramsay is visually very powerful, it has plenty of images to relate to what’s burning inside James. The camera follows James around town as he hangs out with the more rugged older neighborhood boys, or when he’s with his daffy friend Kenny who comically sends his pet mouse to the moon on a balloon, or when we watch him as he wanders alone across a yellow field to look at a new housing development site going up while he dreams of living there. This audacious film seems like a nightmare, or a dream that James can’t wake up from. The result is a lyrical work that has sparse dialogue and a tight structure. It has a numbing affect because its story rings true.

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REVIEWED ON 10/4/2001 GRADE: A –