NEDS greatest strength, other than the excellent work by the cast, is Mullan’s refusal to follow the stereotypes of the adolescent angst narrative (British or otherwise). John McGill (played by both Greg Forrest and Conor McCarron), an excellent student at his Glasgow primary school, finds himself treated with suspicion and skepticism by his teachers when he moves on to secondary school, based on the legacy of his older brother, who had been expelled for violence. The school’s low expectations of him, combined with regular bullying from other boys (which ceases when they realise who his much-feared older brother is) and an unhappy home life with an alcoholic father, lead him to abandon his work ethic and take up with a gang. There is great subtlety at work in the depiction of John’s transformation from scholar to NED, and a premise that has been revisited endlessly since the delinquency exploitation films of the ’50s feels revitalised thanks to a lack of histrionics and cliche.
The first part of NEDS‘ narrative is an accumulation of incidents that lead John McGill to turn his back on his academic potential, pride and ambition. The circumstances of his life and his environment make it too hard for him to stay the course, and there is no single episode or blinding epiphany that changes him. John finally reaches a point where he embraces both the low expectations and the status that being the younger brother of a violent trouble maker bestows on him. That isn’t the end of John’s story however; life isn’t really that pat, and NEDS never feels like a cautionary tale told by a moralising adult speaking down to youth. Just as previous events feed John’s growing despair until he is in a place of almost nihilistic resignation and blind fury, another series of events take him, by film’s end, to a place of newfound understanding and burgeoning maturity, and a reawakening of his desire to overcome his circumstances.
Most of NEDS‘ young actors have no formal training or previous experience, and their lack of self consciousness or extreme posturing is another testament to the director’s absolute control of his material and its execution. Newcomer Conor McCarron, as the older John, is a perfectly underplayed angry young man; McCarron’s eyes variably convey eagerness to please with a hint of self confidence, bewilderment, fear, and almost psychopathic anger. His performance is completely lacking in artifice or the overplaying of many unschooled young actors, and credit for this should rightfully be shared between McCarran and his director, himself an accomplished actor.
Much of the violence in the film erupts without the sort of build-up designed to make it thrilling. Mullan doesn’t glamorise brawling or bullying while ostensibly condemning it, as so many filmed representations of subculture and youth culture do. Similarly, the film isn’t awash in a stomping period soundtrack employed to raise the spirits of the viewer. The glam rock of the period is present and accounted for, but doesn’t function as a nostalgic mood enhancer, another indication of Mullan’s determination not to make a coming-of-age film that celebrates or encourages teenage violence and music’s oft perceived role in it as a call to arms.
The humanity, honesty and ultimate hopefulness of NEDS‘ sets it apart from other anguished teen films. There is a universality in John McGill’s circumstances and his reactions to them that transcends the film’s setting and should resonate with audiences within and outside the UK.