Like many of the glumly realist crowd-pleasers funded by the U.K. Film Council before it, Peter Mullan’s NEDS — that’s “non-educated delinquents” — tells the story of a youth trapped in the hellish depths of lower-class life. John McGill, the young man at the center of the story, is ably played as a teen by the doughy, brooding Conor McCarron and as a child by the flushed, choirboy-ish Gregg Forrest. Mullan, who also wrote the script, charts John’s arc — from bright pupil dependent on the protection of a hero-hoodlum older brother, to a self-sufficient, nihilistic teen — through the lighting and coloration of the production design, moving from a golden opening where John graduates at the top of his primary school class to Ken Loach–reminiscent grays and browns for his troubled adolescence, returning to the opening’s romantic light for a miserably symbolic ending. The abruptness with which John shifts from star student to one violent thug among many faceless others removes all of the drama from the story and gives it a sense of fatalism that’s the film’s main point of interest. Mullan illustrates this inevitability through a series of visual rhymes, particularly a repeated low-angle shot of John, that tie the physical and emotional violence of the British educational institution to the street lives of these youths.
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