So many elements make up a boyhood, from joyful laughter and games, to purloined porno mags and pointless aggression, to the scary realization that something vital is slipping away, something that may never be reclaimed. Naturally nostalgic reflections on this magical time form the basis of countless films, with two -- Billy Elliot and Just Looking -- making the rounds this season. To these ranks can be added a fine new British film by Shane Meadows called A Room for Romeo Brass. Calmly paced and stuffed with subtle grace notes from a largely unknown cast, the movie compares favorably with period pieces like Lasse Hallström's My Life as a Dog and Rob Reiner's Stand by Me. Although it's much less ambitious (and expensive) than those adventurous films -- and less haunting than John Duigan's brilliant look back, The Year My Voice Broke -- Meadows's project is finely tuned, possessed of a lilting tone that carries it from innocence to ghastliness with perfect pitch.
Perhaps this is because Meadows shoots what he knows. A native of the region around Nottingham, England (he's already been revered as a "Midlands Scorsese," a silly, inappropriate comparison when one notes Meadows's kind heart and lack of sadism), the young director culls his talent from a local television workshop and sets his action squarely in his own back garden. In Romeo Brass we meet the corpulent black title character (Andrew Shim) and his white best mate, Gavin "Knocks" Woolley (Ben Marshall) as they stomp around the countryside, talking "a load of bollocks." Like adolescence itself it's an abrupt introduction, but a ska beat and a hastily snarfed bag of chips later, we're meeting their families, who live in a red-brick housing estate that requires only one looming crane shot to establish its chilly local charm. Gavin's mother, Sandra (Julia Ford, a veteran of U.K. television and theater), meticulously cares for her son as well as her loutish husband, Bill (James Higgins), an overgrown adolescent himself. Romeo, on the other hand, sasses his struggling mother, Carol (Ladene Hall), and sister, Ladine (Vicky McClure), while his violent father remains estranged.
Into this stringently local, almost hermetic setting moseys Morell (Paddy Considine), a peculiar man-child who saves Romeo and Gavin from certain destruction at the hands of football hooligans. Befriending the boys as if they were his peers, the edgy Morell takes to shuttling them about in his gunmetal gray Mini, becoming a sort of idol to them, a big kid who's willing to play at their level. But the big kid has appetites and focuses them squarely upon pretty young Ladine, whom he's desperate to court. At Gavin's suggestion the boys convince their lanky friend to dress up in sporty nylon clothes to impress her at the cowboy jeans shop where she works, but the prank triggers an unhappy chain of events that gradually separate Romeo and Gavin. This rift may seem like no big deal to a jaded adult, but when one considers the vitality and inspiration of a childhood friendship, especially in a world alternately crammed with threatening variables and haunted by echoing silence, Meadows's representation (coscripted with his childhood friend Paul Fraser) rings undeniably true.
Almost free of conventional plot, yet eminently absorbing, the movie slowly unleashes new conflicts to convolute the lives of its young protagonists. Gavin suffers from a bad back and requires surgery, a situation pitilessly mocked by Morell, who, it turns out, has known his own share of pain, spinal and otherwise. Meanwhile Morell's spooky insistence upon Ladine's affections ("She is pure, then? You know what I mean by that?") brings him into the Brass household, where he assists Romeo's obdurate father, Joseph (Frank Harper, late of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), in making a shambles of his return to domestic harmony. Further complicating matters, incongruous songs by Beck, Billy Bragg, and Fairport Convention keep appearing on the soundtrack, and Bob Hoskins (who starred in Meadows's previous outing, the boxing movie TwentyFourSeven) keeps showing up to do almost nothing. Somehow, however, even Hoskins's near-mute turn as Gavin's sickbed tutor Mr. Laws complements the piece. Much as in Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth (a project that seems to have sadly ventilated that once-fiery thesp's demons), these bits of ostensibly unmotivated set-dressing conspire to build an atmosphere that ultimately becomes more relevant than story.
A Room for Romeo Brass invites plenty of theorizing about its characters, especially since their onscreen actions only hint at the domestic battle scars hidden beneath. With the exception of Morell (cunningly delivered by Considine as an extremely memorable hybrid of James Stewart and common yobbo), however, these are not the ruined British souls so often found in the works of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. Rather, they simply are suburbanites with complicated lives, and Fraser and Meadows are wise to let us make up our own minds about them. When it comes to the disenchantment of adolescence, though, their thesis is clear: The magic will be lost, but getting it back is worth the struggle.
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