Neds falls into the broad category of “coming of age” movies that automatically have words like “gritty,” “uncompromising,” “brutal” and “realistic” pinned on to them far before we’re given the opportunity to make up our own mind about them. Set in Glasgow in the 1970’s, it tells the story of John McGill, a promising student who falls in with gangs and goes off the rails.
Let’s start off by saying this; Neds has absolute flashes of brilliance in some parts but is ultimately a very flawed experience. Whilst those who are into their Shane Meadows style dramas will certainly find a lot to like, the rest of us might leave feeling somewhat unsatisfied.
Whilst by and large the events that take place in Neds are similar to those of other youth dramas (abuse, violence, searching for belonging etc) and are in part delivered very well compared to its peers, it’s difficult to sing its praises purely because of the major flaw that runs throughout the film; the strength of its lead character. This isn’t a major sleight against newcomer Conor McCarron as much as it is a comment on the development of John McGill as the crux of the narrative (saying that though I couldn’t quite tell if McCarron was meant to look like he was on the verge of bursting out laughing at any given moment or whether this was just a poor job on his part).
The real issue for me is that we’re never really given enough insight into why John does anything that he does. Some things are made painfully obvious but we don’t have the ability to join the dots as we’re never explicitly told how they affect John. We know that he has an abusive alcoholic father, but we never really see John reacting to this up until the point at which he snaps. We see that he initially lives outside of the gangs but don’t really see much of what it is that leads him to become involved in them; what’s driving him? The lust for power? Respect? Control? These questions are never satisfactorily answered and we see John move from one thing to the next without really knowing why he’s doing what it is. Unfortunately this leaves the whole movie a somewhat hollow experience: even after we’ve seen John go full circle and head back to school under the banner of reform, five minutes later he’s off beating the shit out of someone else and we’re never really filled in on the blanks.
Don’t even get me started on the whole hallucinogenic Jesus scene…
The whole package is rounded off nicely (in terms of supporting my previous points rather than satisfyingly) with one of the most bizarre finales I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. Obviously I don’t want to give the game away here, but I’ll just say that its attempts at being metaphorical are heavy handed and overtly obtuse. Once again a suggestion is made towards what these events might mean to or show from the characters, but ultimately they’re not obvious or relative enough to previous events for you to be able to make your mind up definitively to their meaning one way or the other. I’m all for ambiguity and audience interpretation, but crucially for both of these things to actually work, you need to ensure that the audience has the right information to base their judgements on, and in this case they just don’t.
Before I complain too much though, let’s consider that it’s not all about the narrative, as a lot of this film relies on its Scottish setting. The most obvious thing to pick up on is the language. The swearing in Neds is prolific but, if my experience is anything to go by, is quite representative of how Glaswegians speak. Whilst in other areas of the UK (and indeed the English speaking world) fillers within sentences may take the form of “er,” “um,” “like” or “you know,” it’s perfectly normal on the west coast for these to be f*ck or f*cking. These are not usually meant offensively (when used in the aforementioned manner) but those not familiar with its use as such might initially find the language used in Neds a tad excessive. Whilst the language in this film might at first seem a bit over the top, it’s fair to say it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of Glaswegian dialogue.
Even though I live in Scotland and am very accustomed to the accent, there were parts in which I found it difficult to understand what characters were saying; nothing there to spoil the movie particularly for me – but others who aren’t as used to the accent might find it hard to decipher what the characters are saying and thus lose some of the film’s (oft implied) subtleties.
Still, it was in parts an enjoyable watch that perhaps suffers from being slightly overlong and needing better thought in explaining character motivation. Or, if you read every other review I’ve seen of it so far; it’s a gritty, realistic, brutal and uncompromising view of gang youth in seventies Glasgow. Feel free to make your own mind up.