Tyro writer-director Amma Asante and debuting film thesp Stephanie James deliver South Wales tragedy "A Way of Life" to ferocious effect. Solidly in the British cinema social-realist tradition, pic's study of a single teen mom oozing with anger, racism and love for her baby will, however, be challenging to market, since the main character is despicable as well as downtrodden. S...
Tyro writer-director Amma Asante and debuting film thesp Stephanie James deliver South Wales tragedy "A Way of Life" to ferocious effect. Solidly in the British cinema social-realist tradition, pic's study of a single teen mom oozing with anger, racism and love for her baby will, however, be challenging to market, since the main character is despicable as well as downtrodden. Strong fest reception could help Blighty B.O., but thickly accented (unsubtitled) dialogue will impede release in English-lingo markets.
After a gut-grabbing intro showing the vicious beating of a man by teen boys, pic pulls back the throttle for a slow-paced first act laying out the wretched life of Leigh-Anne (James) in a marginal working-class Welsh neighborhood. Living on government assistance with her baby, Rebecca, Leigh-Anne endures nights without electricity in her flat while being berated by her concerned grandmum Annette (Brenda Blethyn).
This girl is anything but a shrinking violet, though, overcompensating with rage for her vulnerabilities. She spurs on a gang of guys around her, including Gavin (Nathan Jones) and Robbie (Gary Sheppeard), and Stephen (Dean Wong), who she likes to boink once in awhile. The group kills much of its time drinking, horsing around and harassing minority folks, all labeled with the all-purpose epithet "Paki."
Neighbor Hassan (Oliver Haden) is from Turkey, though, and he and loving daughter Julie (Sara Gregory) tend to remind Leigh-Anne of everything she lacks, including parents and real affection. Asante's extremely skilled script resists going the Ken Loach route of portraying a fully sympathetic working-class heroine, however. Just one scene, in which Leigh-Anne is revealed to be a pimp, supplying schoolgirls to older men in pubs, is enough to make her almost irredeemably repellant.
Pic shifts between such ugliness and incidents that show Leigh-Anne as abused by others or a victim of circumstance (including a wrenching scene when dripping wax falls on little Rebecca).
In its steady build toward the climax shown at the beginning, "A Way of Life" portrays sources of the racism inflicted by poor whites on poor nonwhites, even as it remains doggedly engaged with Leigh-Anne. Her counterforce is Julie, a good girl whose attraction to Gavin sends the drama into a cauldron of horrors and bleakness. Asante displays real chutzpah by ultimately leaving Leigh-Anne -- and aud -- in the depths of despair.
In terms of skill and passion, the adolescent ensemble recalls that in "Mean Creek," but it's James who shoots the lights out with an absolutely sensational handling of a nearly impossible character. Her fiery delivery seems almost too much to bear early on, but the wrath and love are somehow balanced and paced for full effect. Though she's in familiar form, Blethyn's interaction with James brings out a fresh ferocity.
Asante shows an assured if plain way with camera and staging, aided by firm editing from Steve Singleton and Clare Douglas, and Dylanesque music support from David Gray.