Friday, October 9, 2009

Somers Town -- boredom, drinking, and hope

Director: Shane Meadows, 2008.

Somers Town is a realistic but somewhat dull movie of life in London for two non-London teens. What started as a short film, became a short (at 71 minutes) feature-length movie. Billed as a coming-of-age story of their budding friendship, it is patchy and will be of interest primarily to Anglophiles or people familiar with London.

The title refers to the small area of central London around Camden which is defined by the three major railway termini: Euston, Kings Cross and St Pancras. These three service the North and East of England, the Midlands and Scotland. With the present regeneration of the area, this locale is undergoing major change. Indeed, with the relocation of the Eurostar International terminus to St Pancras, it is now a gateway to Europe. And herein lies the heart of the story: two teens, one from Europe and one from the Midlands, come to a cross-roads in Somers Town.

Meadows' had the idea of this film during his journeying to London from Nottingham. Amidst the period of transition for Somers Town, this is a film of the transition of the two youths coming to London and experiencing its familiarity and strangeness. He chose to shoot in black and white to focus on the textures, shapes and forms of the area. And to amplify the naturalness and immediacy, he shot each scene as one continuous take with improvisation from the actors. He also filmed the whole movie in chronological story sequence to add to the effect. What results feels authentic, sometimes too authentic. Life is not that interesting, indeed it can become mundane and boring.

We first see Tomo (Thomas Turgoose), a runaway from Nottingham, coming down to London on a train, bag in hand. Arriving at the terminus, he has no place to go, just a dream of escaping to somewhere. As nightfall arrives, he stands outside a convenience store trying to convince adults to buy beer for him. When he succeeds, he sits on a wall drowning his despair by escaping into his beer can. That is, until three other wayward youths accost him, beat him up and steal his bag with all his worldly belongings.

Marek (Piotr Jagiello), on the other hand, is a Polish teenager living with his single father who is working on the new rail line. His days are spent taking photos, but by night he is bored. His father works hard and then drinks hard, leaving his alone and lonely.

Tomo and Marek's lives intersect at a working class cafe, where Marek is looking at photos of Maria (Elisa Lasowski), the pretty French waitress. When Tomo steals the photos and is then caught by Marek, an unlikely friendship begins.

An immediate issue raised by Somers Town is that of inner city violence. Violence finds Tomo, leaving him bloodied and bruised. Marek unknowingly risks a similar fate by wearing a Manchester United soccer jersey in London. A friendly but exploiting neighbor Graham (Perry Benson) tells Marek this will get him in trouble in a city of strong soccer loyalties. I can attest to the fact that wearing the wrong soccer shirt in the wrong part of town is like wearing cripps colors in a bloods ghetto. Graham gives Marek an Arsenal shirt to wear instead, since the "gunners" are a London team.

Violence often leads to other crime. In this case, the violence that left Tomo a victim of theft, bereft of money and clothes, led to him becoming a thief, stealing others' clothes for himself. Sin leads to sin, and crime leads to crime. It is a vicious cycle that can only be broken by grace and forgiveness. The Bible is clear that theft is a sin and a crime (Exod. 20:15). We should not fall to this level, particularly if we are followers of Jesus. There are often other ways, other people who are willing to help, as Tomo discovers.

But boredom hits the two protagonists. As Tomo and Marek's friendship develops, they spend their days together, hanging out through their boredom. Boredom can easily lead to mischief or crime. Throw in hope, though, and dreams can emerge. For Marek and Tomo, their dream is of Maria. Teenage hormones produce infatuation masquerading as love.

When they determine to win her affections with a picnic, complete with French bread, cheese and wine, little do they know she is no longer in London. Even the best made plans can turn sour. These two lads learn that life does not always go as planned. This is a lesson for us as well. We often make plans and expect them to go smoothly. But life has a way of throwing curve balls at us. The apostle James, brother to Jesus, said, "Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." (Jas 4:13-15) God is always in control, and we are not. We make plans but should be ready for them to change. His will be done.

With no Maria, Tomo and Marek get plastered on the wine themselves. Indeed, drinking is evident throughout. Marek's father, at one point, says to his Polish buddies, "Let's get wasted." That is his idea of how to spend an evening. It is not surprising that his drinking to excess leads to his son's underage drinking. The sins of the father are passed on to the son. We learn from those we look up to, especially our parents.

In England and other European countries, the drinking age is set at 18. Yet, most teens drink regularly and it is tolerated, even affirmed within the culture. Certainly, underage drinking is a major problem in many countries, especially the United States. Drinking alcohol is itself not a sin, for those of legal age. Jesus turned water into wine (Jn. 2:1-11) and partook of wine at the last supper (Lk. 22:7-19). In fact, he commanded his disciples to eat bread and drink wine in the sacrament of communion as a means of remembering his sacrificial death (1 Cor. 11:23-26). But drinking to get drunk and losing control is a sin (Eph. 5:18). When this happens we can lose track of our actions and do things or say things we will later regret. Beyond that, we may cause those with a less mature faith to go against their conscience and in so doing commit sin (Rom. 14:15). Drinking responsibly and legally with moderation is an appropriate behavior for a follower of Jesus.

As Somers Town ends, Meadows moves from monochrome to color to highlight dreams fulfilled. The boys' friendship has reached a deeper level of maturity. They have learned from their mistakes and have moved beyond the impoverishment of inner city London to wonders beyond the shores. Hopes and dreams can be realized.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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