The opening scene in NEDS, set in Glasgow in 1972, takes us to John McGill’s graduation from primary school. He’s ranked second in his class and receives a plaque for academic merit, accompanied by the cheers of his mother and aunt and the polite applause of his schoolmates.
Alas, such honors provide little protection for this sweet bookish lad who is confronted, immediately after posing for a celebratory photo with the headmaster, by a menacing boy a few years his senior whose face is almost completely hidden by a dark hood. This intruder, who seems to be barely noticed by the smiling adults all around, informs John that in his new school he will “get his cunt kicked in” every single day and makes some other equally unpleasant threats which don’t bear repeating here.
Thus are we introduced to the two worlds of John McGill: a predictable one of school lessons and examinations in which adults set the rules and dole out the rewards and another of seemingly random violence in which the boys and young men involved make and enforce the rules. The story of NEDS (“Non-Educated Delinquents”) is that of a young man who has the intelligence and drive to succeed in the adult-governed world of school, but must also thread his way through the minefield of gangs, thus having to navigate a treacherous road to adulthood largely unfamiliar to those who grew up in secure middle-class neighborhoods.
This may sound like a story you’ve seen many times before but take my word for it, you haven’t. Very little in NEDS is predictable and the film is full of small details which feel exactly right, from a scene of young John pressing his school clothes under the mattress to the silent, watchful presence of his younger sister, who seems to have already suffered deep hurts she dares not express.
Writer/director Peter Mullan neither glamorizes the world of juvenile delinquents nor turns his film into a sob story of youthful potential gone missing. Instead, he presents the story from John’s perspective and respects him as the agent of his own future who makes choices based on the realities of his life. NEDS is also wickedly funny at times, demonstrating that there’s humor to be found even in the grimmest of circumstances.
Not everything works in NEDS — the final third sags and a drug-induced hallucination involving a crucified Christ is pure over-reaching — but what does work is so good that this film is more than worth your while. It’s the very antithesis of the well-made film exemplified by 2011 BAFTA winner The King’s Speech (NEDS was not nominated), favoring energy and impact over easily digested storytelling. Mullan captures the frustrations and misdirected energies of a young man presented with more than he can deal with without turning him into a victim of his circumstances.
Granted, John hasn’t been dealt the best of hands, growing up in a household where they can’t afford to keep the heat on and everyone walks on eggshells in fear of setting off his alcoholic father (played by Mullan), but on the positive side his mother and aunt both care for him and at least he’s not the immediate object of his father’s violence. Similarly although his school is less than ideal (it’s also clearly strapped for cash and family reputation is weighed alongside achievement when placing the boys into classes) it does provide some outlet for his intellectual talents, at least when he’s in the good graces of the ruling adults.
John (played in his younger years by Greg Forrest and as an older adolescent by Conor McCarron; both are outstanding) doesn’t have to look far for another model of growing up. His older brother Benny (Joe Szula) is a hoodlum who can provide John the kind of protection the adult world clearly cannot, and being Benny’s younger brother also provides John entrée into the world of teenage gangs, which offers a kind of comradeship otherwise missing in his life. He tries to keep the two worlds compartmentalized but pays the price in mental and emotional strain as he must continually satisfy two conflicting sets of demands.
The film’s tone shifts along with John’s increasingly disordered mental states, beginning in a sunny naturalism and becoming darker and more self-conscious as he retreats into himself. Cinematographer Roman Osin and soundtrack composer Craig Armstrong draw on horror tropes in key scenes and the film’s lighting and tonal palette also signal the changes in John’s internal world as the warm tones of the opening scenes give way to dark greys and blacks. The result is a film which takes you inside the emotional world of the main character rather than simply observing his life from the outside.
Many of the characters in NEDS speak in a Glaswegian dialect which is sometimes incomprehensible to non-Glaswegian ears, depending on the speaker and the amount of slang used. The solution taken for this DVD is to subtitle everything with semi-phonetic transcriptions which results in phrases like “Ah dae go to this fucking school” (as you might imagine, the f-word and the c-word both get a real workout from the gang members and wannabees). It’s probably the best possible choice since seeing the sounds spelled out helps your ear to pick out the meaning while translation into standard English would simply be laughable. You’re still on your own for the meaning of slang terms like “stoater” and “Provy money” but if you’re watching the DVD at home you can always google them.
The only extras included on the disc are two deleted scenes which is a shame because a director’s commentary could have added a lot to the experience of the film.