When it comes to studies of youth subculture, British directors have made some of the most memorable: 'Quadrophenia', 'Made in Britain', 'Trainspotting'... And to this list can be added 'This Is England', Shane Meadows' unsettling and poignant look at a lonely boy whose search for friends exposes him to racism and hate.
July 1983. With school just about to break-up for the summer, 12-year-old Shaun (Turgoose) prepares for another solitary summer in a town that he can't stand and where the other kids pick on him because of his clothes. Having lost his father in the Falklands War, Shaun has no older male figure in his life and finds it difficult to talk about things with his mother (Hartley).
Having found himself dragged before the principal for fighting an older boy who made a joke about his father, Shaun's last day of term improves when he meets skinhead Woody (Gilgun) and his pals on the way home.
While Woody and his gang look threatening, they're not racists and count black teenager Milky (Shim) among their ranks. And beneath their love of cheap brew and vandalism, there's a tenderness to the group which sees them take Shaun in as an equal, kitting him out in skinhead gear and giving him a haircut.
But the camaraderie and feeling of belonging which brightens Shaun's days proves shortlived when Woody's older pal Combo (Graham) is released from prison. Combo's racism and bully boy tactics drive a wedge between the members of Woody's gang, with some trying to give him as wide as berth as possible and others completely taken in by his manifesto. Among the latter is Shaun, desperately in search of a 'stronger' father figure than Woody and too young to see how dangerous Combo really is.
Once again working with mostly non-professional actors Meadows gets great performances from his cast, especially Turgoose, a boy who never acted before but whose screentime here is so powerful that he makes every scene his own - even the ones involving Graham as the unhinged Combo.
With an opening montage which features The Falklands War, 'Roland Rat', 'Knight Rider', 'Space Invaders', aerobics, Duran Duran and the Rubik's Cube, Meadows and production designer Mark Leese brilliantly evoke the era and this continues throughout the film, from clothes to hairstyles to music, and even down to the tiniest detail like the fact that with times tough for Shaun and his mother, he has a Grifter and not the more modern BMX.
As a writer Meadows also has a great understanding of the rhythm and energy of conversation - Shaun's trip to the shoe shop with his mother to buy Doc Martens is a particular highlight – but he doesn't fare as well in developing the relationships between his characters. There are some holes in 'This Is England' that acting can't fill and by the close it's somewhat frustrating that the dynamics between Woody and Shaun, Woody and Combo and the girl who was involved with both of them weren't explored in more scenes.
That said, this is a heartfelt film which doesn't pull any punches in its depiction of youth gone wild and nationalism gone mad. And in another 25 years it won't have dated one bit.