Having spent a year collecting favourable reviews on the world festival circuit, one of the more interesting, challenging Brit flicks that played last year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, writer/director Helen Walsh’s gritty The Violators, is released across the UK this Friday. 

Excluded from school and society and having given evidence against her abusive father, brittle, tough but vulnerable 15-year-old Shelly (Lauren McQueen in a star-making turn) plays surrogate mother to her two brothers – young, pre-pubescent Jerome (Callum King Chadwick) and adult waster Andy (Derek Barr) – struggling to keep the family together against the odds which isn’t easy when deadbeat Andy owes money to local loan shark/gangster Mikey (Stephen Lord). 

While a redemptive love may be offered by nice-guy neighbor and army cadet Kieran (Liam Ainsworth), Shelly is flattered and swayed by the attentions of the middle-aged Mikey who’s taken a vulpine interest in the teenage girl, offering a friendly, caring ear, showing her a bit of adult attention, overlooking Andy’s debts and buying increasingly expensive gifts for Jerome and Shelly, squiring her around in his plush Range Rover, grooming her, insidiously working his way into her life. 

But the predatory Mikey isn’t the only one taking an interest in Shelly. Privileged, cultured, middle-class teen Rachel (Brogan Ellis) is stalking her, inserting herself into Rachel’s life, entering into a tentative friendship with the worldly but still naïve Shelly while keeping a watchful eye on Mikey. But as Shelly is drawn into relationships with the manipulative Mikey and the ambiguous Rachel, who can she trust? 

Already acclaimed as a novelist and the author of the controversial, uncompromising Brass, there’s echoes of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer Of Love about Walsh’s stylish debut feature The Violators which draws on the likes of the Dardennes Brothers and Lukas Moodyson, rather than the kitchen sink Social Realism of Ken Loach or the snotty, middle-class, condescension of Mike Leigh, to create a coming-of-age drama that’s moody and resolutely cinematic. 

Working from her own refreshingly spare screenplay, The Violators shows rather tells, Walsh’s vision of urban decay as beautiful and pastel-paletted as it is brutally desolate, the long-legged Shelly, on the cusp of womanhood but still undeniably a child, negotiating some very treacherous waters. One of the things that immediately strikes you about the film is just how minimalist the script is, how quiet the film is – words are like bullets, weapons that Walsh refuses to waste, as much going on beneath the surface, legs paddling frantically, as above. 

There’s a grubby, fairytale dreaminess almost to Mikey’s pursuit of Shelly, his courtship both tender and calculating even as you feel your skin crawl and Lord is wonderful as the charming, bottom-feeding, underclass predator, a seductive big bad wolf in a very dark, dark wood, while Brogan Ellis fascinates as the lonely, damaged Rachel, needy and manipulative, passive/aggressive, craving attention, affection, love, her relationship with Shelly always ambiguous, a blossoming Sapphic curiosity undercut with something more queasily reptillian. In any other film, you couldn’t take your eyes off Ellis but The Violators is owned, body and soul, by Lauren McQueen who, like Walsh, makes her feature debut in a raw, instinctive performance that’s the most exciting thing to happen to British cinema since Jack O’Connell swaggered on to the scene. 

Subtle, grim and transgressive, The Violators is an ultimately hopeful coming-of-age drama, that marks the assured debut of not one but two fresh British talents.

Movie Review: The Violators
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