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In a Changing England, a Child Irrevocably Changed

Maggie Thatcher's England, 1983, just after the Falklands war: In a town where there are no jobs, men who want to support their families head off to become cannon fodder, leaving their children behind. Shaun is a smart 12-year-old, who lost his father in the war, and who therefore, in the merciless logic of the schoolyard, gets picked on constantly. So his eyes are blurred with tears as he blunders into what looks like trouble: a gang of skinheads lounging beneath an overpass.

Luckily their leader, at least, sounds sympathetic — and once he has talked Shaun into trusting him, he and his mates join in a merry round of mockery directed at that schoolyard bully, who's unfortunate enough to be called Harvey. The giggles start, and Shaun suddenly has friends.

Older friends, it's true, and not exactly the role models his mother might have chosen for him. But in the early '80s, these skinheads aren't neo-Nazis either. The little gang that adopts Shaun as a sort of mascot listens to West Indian music, and even has a black gang member, jokingly referred to as Milky.

And if their idea of fun includes vandalism, it also includes ice cream, and joking in diners, and quiet parties — where an outlandish-looking older girl with black lipstick and ratted hair catches Shaun's eye. He angles for his first kiss like a proper little gentleman: "Would you, ah, like to take a turn in the garden with me?" he asks, and she promptly melts.

Filmmaker Shane Meadows was himself a skinhead in his early teens, and there are undercurrents of autobiography here, as you'll gather from a certain similarity of names — Shane, Shaun. But if the film's initial portrait of this rebellious youth "tribe" is more appealing than you expect, change was coming to skinhead culture in 1983 — and in This Is England, it tromps in wearing heavy boots: a 30-year-old, skinhead ex-con whose racist, profanity-laced rants — about unemployment, the Falklands war, South Asian immigrants and such — change the whole tone of the film. The gang is appalled, but Shaun sits mesmerized.

Writer-director Meadows likes to mix professional and nonprofessional actors, and in this film, needing a standout for Shaun, he found him in a town near where he was filming: an underprivileged 13-year-old, small for his age, diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and recently rejected for a bit part in his school play. As Shaun, little Thomas Turgoose doesn't have a "bit" part; he's in virtually every scene, and is terrific throughout. Tough, sometimes scared, other times scary, especially when the film reaches the Clockwork Orange-style ultraviolence it's been headed for from the beginning.

This youngster leaves you thinking about the effects of being an outcast, of violence, and of needing a father figure — much as the film leaves you thinking about a skinhead culture of outcasts given to violence, born in a moment of war, when father figures were elsewhere. Is that too simplistic? Maybe. But it's persuasive enough in This Is England to leave you thinking that maybe this is England.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.