Friday, April 21, 2017


Somers Town (2008) is about friendship, both the real kind and the movie kind. It seems like it could be autobiographical, inspired perhaps by the life of writer Paul Fraser or director Shane Meadows, but also by the great childhood films of the past, especially those by European directors. The movie is realistic, gritty at times, but the point isn't how down and dirty it can get, but how childhood comes with a share of pain and anguish, and how some of it is eased by the people me meet.

The movie involves teenage boys Merek and Tomo, and their adventures in Somers Town, a rough, dreary section of London. (If Somers Town isn't actually dreary, Meadows' use of black and white certainly makes it look bleak; I was reminded of old British movies from the early '60s. Think A Taste of Honey, or The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.) Merek (Piotr Jagiello) is a Polish kid who lives with his father, a guy who works all day on construction sites and spends his nights drinking with his Polish buddies. Merek's father is well-meaning but crude; he gives the boy reading lessons out of a porn magazine, and laughs as Merek struggles with certain obscene words. Meanwhile, Merek likes photography, and has a crush on a local waitress. Like so many budding male photographers before him, he takes countless pictures of his romantic interest; he pours over them, searching for hidden signs of love.

Merek is tall, slightly stooped as if trying to stop himself from growing, and has the kind of long, greasy hair that I remember having as a teenager, the sort of lank mop that can't be saved by any amount of showering and shampooing. Tomo (Thomas Turgoose) is short, seemingly smaller and younger than his actual age - they were both about 15 or 16 at the time of filming - but has already developed an interest in alcohol. Tomo is in Somers Town because he ran away from his home in Scotland. His first night in the neighborhood sees him savagely beaten by three punks who steal his bag. Badly bruised, with no money, he quickly insinuates himself into Merek's life. He talks his way into staying at Merek's home, hiding under Merek's bed when the Polish boy's drunk father returns at night.

The early days of the friendship are amusing. When Tomo gets sick from eating too many Polish sausages, Merek is afraid to let Tomo use the bathroom in case the old man comes home. Also, Tomo develops a crush on the same waitress that Merek loves. "I think I'll make her my girlfriend," he says. "I won't be comfortable with you having so many pictures of her. You'll have to give those all to me." Later Tomo reassures his pal, "Let's not fall out over a girl, ok?" Such is the power of adolescent bonding.

To be sure, the boys aren't looking for anything resembling real love, or even sex. Maria, the waitress, is simply a kind older girl who smiles at them and ruffles their hair. The movie's charm is that it reminds us of the time when a smile was enough to set our wheels spinning.

As for Maria (Elisa Lasowski), she's where the movie becomes a "movie." She's all together too sweet to exist in real life. Not in my life, anyway. When the impish Tomo tells her he's a talented painter and wants her to model for him, she plays along, encouraging his fantasies. The waitresses I meet, most of them, are sourpusses. If I said I wanted to paint them, they'd call security.

Eventually, the boys have a drunken night together, which consists of jumping up and down on the furniture and throwing potato chips at each other. Just as their party gets rolling, Merek's father comes home. He loses his temper and throws Tomo out. Ever resourceful, Tomo moves next door with one of Merek's neighbors, an eccentric wheeler dealer who puts Tomo to work as a sort of houseboy. Tomo, who lost his clothing to the muggers earlier in the movie, is down to wearing some women's clothing he stole from a laundromat. We next see him polishing antiques, wearing a house dress. It's a testament to the movie's uniqueness that he seems absolutely content. He's like a rat, making a home for himself wherever he can find it.

The movie put me in a good mood. Tomo, a bit of an artful dodger, is a bad influence on Merek, but you get the feeling they'll be buddies for a long time. As Tomo, Turgoose is a funny, slippery character. Jagiello's Merek is a perfect foil, slightly exasperated by Tomo's restless energy. I liked both of these kids. Fittingly, they shared a Best Actor award at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival.

In its depiction of an adolescent male friendship, Somers Town hits on a perfect truth: many people aren't in a position to choose their friends, but if you're lucky you'll bump into someone suitable. The movie is filmed in black and white, though there's a color coda that follows the boys on a trip. The color bit felt cheesy, and didn't quite fit the rest of the movie. Yet, I know why the director did it. He liked Tomo and Merek as much as I did, and he wanted to give them a gift. An American director would've had the boys get revenge on the thieves who stole Tomo's things. Meadows, a Brit, decided it would be more fun to give the boys a colorful sendoff, rather than stick them in an alley fight. 

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