“Marcus is in the garden, but … shhh”
Young John McGill’s Aunt Beth, played by Marianna Palka, tells the boy, “your dreams are gonna come true, ya know”. It’s a telling statement once you watch Peter Mullan’s very Scottish—to the point it had English subtitles for an English language film—Neds. Sitting through the World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, I began to wonder if an adolescent in 1972 Glasgow could dream, let alone think it would become reality. The title is an acronym/abbreviation of the common Scottish detrimental tag Non-Educated Delinquents, a broad title to the gang regimented children ruling the streets at night, amoral to the point of stabbing, punching, and bashing heads without remorse, simply because they live on the other side of town. It’s a world where one only exists as a part of the problem unless he can learn to embrace the unavoidable abuse and muggings without having an affiliation. John (his younger self played by Gregg Forrest) has thus far avoided entry into this world, but his graduation from primary school ushers in the chaos.
Top of his class and the complete opposite of older brother Benny (Joe Szula), John aspires for greatness, fearlessly looking his teacher in the eye and saying his inclusion in class is a mistake—he should be next door with the more advanced students. Unfortunately, as the principal blatantly relays, his relation to Benny, the biggest troublemaker in town and recently expelled indefinitely, means a period of growth to prove the grades and bookish demeanor are not just an act. Finish top two of the class at the end of the marking period and he can move up, the worst two from there filling his absence; much like how the European soccer conferences work. So he works as hard as he can, distancing himself from his brother except for an early request of help when a bully named Canta (Gary Milligan) threatens to hurt him. Benny and his friend Fergie (John Joe Hay) waste no time in showing how John is off limits—he doesn’t need to be part of the gang to have its protection.
But school flies by and John grows up top of the class years later, facing a very difficult summer. Without anything to do, kids don’t generally last long before gang life comes knocking, either beating them down or enlisting their services into the fraternity. Parents know the world outside their doors and they fear for the wellbeing of their own, so when John (now portrayed by Conor McCarron) accidentally breaks the glass cover of his friend’s father’s record player, he is refused access to the home or contact with the boy. A kind-hearted soul, John stops by to give his friend soccer shoes as an apology, but is treated like an outcast hoodlum, unworthy of even the smallest of decencies. Therefore, in a fragile state of mind, he ventures too close to the local playground inhabited by an upstart gang looking to be cannibalized by Benny’s crew. They attempt to steal the shoes and his money before realizing he’s a McGill. Changing their attitude quickly and befriending the boy, it all goes down hill as John realizes, whether he joins or not, he’ll constantly be looked upon as a bad egg. He might as well embrace it.
And this is where Neds comes undone. The first hour was a brilliant mix of humor on behalf of the teaching staff—Steven Robertson’s Mr. Bonetti getting great laughs upon singling out his star student and calling him a swot for getting a perfect score before the rest of the class could—and the lippy, sarcastic, and mean juveniles running wild. We watch this smart kid grow up despite the environment outside his door, overcoming his brother, his abusive father (Mullan), and his last name to be held in high regard at school and keep hopes for further education alive. I guess his inevitable descent into darkness should have been obvious, but I never anticipated the fall being as unrelenting as it is. Not only does he begin to revel in the lifestyle, he works his way to the top, becoming even crazier than his brother ever was. Fearless in his pursuit of rivals across town, chasing them into their own territory, an air of power cultivates. The former boy at risk of getting pummeled now is the sociopath killer looking for blood. A reunion with Canta showing just how out of control John’s temper has become, he is unable to make amends and remember his brother already won the fight. A black void now rests where his soul once was.
There is still a lot of humor infused into the second act, but the darkness, almost to the point of absurdity, proves to be too much. I’m sure nothing depicted onscreen is very far from the truth, but perhaps Mullan could have toned it down just a little as the monotony of brutality does cause the time to drag. McCarron is phenomenal in his performance, though, transforming from studious to sadistic, at one point taping knives to his hands in order to break through enemy lines and destroy all in his way. He burns his bridges with teachers who once held such admiration; no longer even finding use for arriving on time—his tardiness causing the funniest exchange of the film in the form of Gary Lewis’s Mr. Russell offering him a piggyback ride inside. But, you can still see the compassion that once illuminated his eyes hidden beneath. Unsure of what he is doing, he’s too far lost to stop. The fall only gets worse before a turnaround looks possible, yet even if he tried to turn a new leaf and re-assimilate into acceptable society, who would be willing to give him the chance? At some point, even redemption is out of reach and I credit Mullan for telling such a tale, no matter how far into hell he goes. It truly is a jungle out there.
Neds 6/10 | ★ ★ ½
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival