Wednesday, September 7, 2011

No One's Gettin' Fat, 'cept Mama Cass: "Beautiful Thing" (1996)

This small British film has everything: a compelling plot, a brisk pace, and an astounding cast that does absolutely nothing wrong with their performances.

Jamie (Glen Berry) is a typical teen teased at school by his friends, who include apartment neighbor Ste (Scott Neal). Jamie lives at home with his mother Sandra (Linda Henry), who works as a barmaid and dreams of running her own pub someday. Ste lives with his single dad Ronnie (Garry Cooper) and abusive older brother Trevor (Daniel Bowers), who sometimes beats Ste bad enough that Ste must go stay with Jamie.

Jamie and Ste's other neighbor is Leah (Tameka Empson), a troubled girl who is trying to grow up too fast and is obsessed with '60's singer Mama Cass. Sandra also has a fling going on the side, with younger Tony (Ben Daniels), a twentysomething who is smarter than he lets on. Jamie and Ste begin growing closer, and start an affair. The apartment building being what it is, word soon spreads and Sandra's relationship with Tony begins to deteriorate. Then, Sandra comes up for a better job in another part of the city, disrupting Ste and Jamie's already fragile situation.

This was based on a play, but Jonathan Harvey opens it up well enough that it never had a stagy feel to it. Hettie Macdonald's direction is nothing short of miraculous. Even the supporting characters get their moments, but no one overshadows anyone else. It is masterful.

The film contains some of the best casting decisions ever. No one hits a false note, no one. Berry is appropriately different as Jamie, I would have picked on him in high school, too. Scott Neal is great as Ste, especially in his tentative scenes with Jamie. Linda Henry should have received the freakin' Oscar for her Sandra. She brings so much more to the role that quickly could have gone the way of scenery chewing. She is unbelievably good, and one to watch. Daniels as Tony is so earnest it hurts, and his story (however brief) is just as interesting. Empson has these big eyes and is lovely as the troubled Leah. Like Henry, she easily could have crossed over into hysterics (especially her inebriated scenes), but director Macdonald reins her in enough to turn in a fantastic performance.

The British accents here are very heavy, and some of the lines are impossible to understand. Forget all that, though, and see "Beautiful Thing." Finally, a film whose title is truth in advertising. (* * * * *) out of five stars.