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This movie, from first-time feature director Jamie Jones, takes place amid the London riots of 2011 and the white noise of rage and desperation they both caused and fed off, as the police shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham triggered angry protests that degenerated into nationwide violence and looting.
As the title implies, the film is about power. It is about submitting to the imperatives of sex, friendship and family, and asks what it was like to live in that atmosphere, to inhale its microbes of anger and fear, and to contend with the decibel count of aggression on the streets. One of the film’s most insightful moments comes when the three main characters go on a bucolic narrowboat ride along the River Lea; the sudden calm and silence are startling and healing. It is the noisy and clamorous city that is poisoning people’s hearts.
Obey is a well-directed, well-acted film that cleverly meshes news footage of the riots with staged fictional scenes, and there is a strong central performance from Marcus Rutherford as Leon, a young man just out of care, back at home with his caring but lonely and alcoholic single mum, Chelsea (an excellent performance from T’Nia Miller) and channelling his energies into boxing. When social tensions escalate, Leon finds himself in a crisis of loyalty among his friends, while falling for a beautiful social justice warrior/trustafarian white girl, Twiggy (Sophie Kennedy Clark), who is temporarily in a squat, though with the safety net of a comfortable family home out in the shires.
My reservations about the film centre on its tendency towards gender cliches and to fetishise the dangerous blondeness and sexiness of its female lead; and also the way it ends on a macho flourish of violence that has no consequences other than the final credit roll. The violence has kept it real – end of story. Yet what leads up to all this is powerfully and emotionally presented.
Leon is a thoughtful, intelligent guy dealing with complex emotions. The film reveals that his going into care at 15 was a voluntary decision, and his return home four years later is conditional on his mother dealing with her drinking issues now his abusive father is off the scene. But his mother has a new boyfriend, who is another bully and addiction enabler.
Leon hangs out with his friends, who drift around getting into trouble almost accidentally. James has a very interesting opening shot, showing them all ambling up the street talking about all sorts of lightheartedly outrageous stuff before stealing something from a car seemingly on a whim.
Sucking up nitrous oxide from balloons is their chief leisure activity, and there is a nice moment when Leon morosely plays with some Scalextric in his flat – a reminder of fleeting childhood happiness. Fate turns when he goes to a squat party and meets the elegant Twiggy, who has an activist boyfriend, Anton (Sam Gittins), clearly from the same side of the tracks as her. Leon finds himself drawn shyly into their ambit, to the suspicion of his friends. His feelings for Twiggy are one source of tension, his loathing of his mum’s obnoxious boyfriend is another, and then, when the riots cause the boxing gym to close its doors, the frustration climbs to dangerous levels.
The disorder causes a serious split among his friends, some of whom believe the riots are about “revenge” and some whom think it is about “stealing stuff”. When Twiggy shows up at Leon’s flat, her encounter with his mum is uneasy. “Where d’you spring from?” asks Chelsea. “Same place as you, I guess,” says Twiggy insouciantly, to which Chelsea replies: “We ain’t from the same place, darling.” And they certainly aren’t.
Jones gets some nice shots and shrewd moments. I was intrigued when he showed two police officers in an alley, one getting the other to drink some water – they are just as scared as everyone else. A robust, confident debut.
Source: The Guardian
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