Not just another miserablist kitchen-sink drama, writer-director-actor Peter Mullan’s third feature film, Neds, is both a vivid portrait of a specific time and place—early ’70s, working-class Glasgow—and a study of a fairly universal coming-of-age crisis. “Neds” are “non-educated delinquents,” which the protagonist is bound and determined not to become at the start of the film. After graduating primary school at the top of his class, John McGill (played as a pre-teen by Gregg Forrest) enters a secondary school ruled by violent gangs and by teachers quick with a belt. Meanwhile, at home, his father (played by Mullan) keeps the entire family on eggshells with his drunken rages, while his older brother can’t seem to stay out of jail for more than a few days at a time. Young John tries to keep his nose in his books, but his headmaster doesn’t trust him because he’s a McGill, while the thugs at school let him know that they’d “kick his cunt in” if they weren’t afraid of his brother.
Then John grows up (now played by Conor McCarron) and begins to live down to everyone’s expectations. He joins one of those gangs, buys himself a pair of Doc Martens, and starts getting drunk and listening to glam-rock with his lads. The hero’s downward spiral is a little predictable—and abrupt, given how quickly he goes from getting top marks to swearing at his teachers—but Mullan roots it in all in the familiar adolescent feelings of embarrassment and isolation. McCarron gravitates to the hooligans because ultimately, they accept him, while even the people at school who admire his intellect single him out as a freak. Neds gets darker and stranger down the stretch, as McCarron tries to reform after experiencing what may be a psychotic break. But throughout, Mullan binds the narrative to a recurring image of go-nowhere bruisers tossing a playground swing around its top-pole, faster and faster, tighter and tighter, until no one can reach it or play with it.
Key features: Two fine but insignificant deleted scenes.