Dir: AmmaAsante. UK. 2004. 91mins.
A bruisingdrama in social realist mode, writer-director Amma Asante's A Way Of Lifetackles racism and anti-Muslim prejudice in a deprived town in South Wales.Asante's protagonists are disaffected teenagers, badly educated, strugglingwith poverty and unemployment, who blame a Turkish neighbour for theirpredicament.
The film beginsin brutal fashion, with a man being beaten up on the streets. The backdrop isgrim in the extreme, but as in Alan Clarke's best dramas (Scum, MadeIn Britain), there is a painstaking attempt to explain just what makes thecharacters tick. Their humour and resilience is shown as well as theirself-pity, nihilism and capacity for violence.
Theatricalprospects for A Way Of Life seem pretty bleak. Asante's debut feature(due to be released by Verve in the UK in mid-November) is resolutely downbeatand has few recognised faces apart from Brenda Blethyn.
Nonetheless,Asante (a former child actress who appeared in long running kids' TV series
Internationalfestival programmers looking for new British talent in the mould of Loach andLeigh may also be intrigued. Amma Asante won the UK Film Talent Award at therecent London Film Festival
Leigh-AnneWilliams (Stephanie James) is a young single mum living in a damp-infestedhouse, struggling to make ends meet. She can barely afford to keep herelectricity on and the council won't approve any more crisis loans for her. Sheallows her 17-year-old brother Gavin (Nathan Jones) and his friends Robbie(Gary Sheppeard) and Stephen (Dean Wong) to use the house to store stolengoods. They give her a few pounds from the proceeds when they sell these goods,but she is so strapped for money that she is reduced to pimping. Her own motheris dead. Her father is violent and abusive. The father of her child is inprison and the child's paternal grandmother (Blethyn) is bossy and censorious.
Asanteeffectively shows us how Leigh-Anne becomes embittered and paranoid. She doteson her child and is terrified that the social services will take the childaway. As her own problems mount, she grows ever more jealous of her seeminglyprosperous Turkish-Muslim neighbour Hassan (Haden) and his pretty teenagedaughter, with whom her brother briefly has an affair.
It's madestarkly apparent that Leigh-Anne and her friends really are at a dead end.There are no jobs for them. Asante also emphasises that they're young andnaive. The characterisation here is double-edged throughout. On the one hand,Leigh-Anne is a selfless mother doing her best for her daughter in awfulcircumstances. On the other, she is violent and vindictive. She and her friendsare looking for scapegoats. "How can I get anything round here when allthey want to do is give to the Pakis," one laments, oblivious to the factthat Hassan is Turkish and has lived in Wales for 30 years.
Along the way,there are flickers of humour and even romance. The film was shot on location inSouth Wales. Asante attempts to contrast the natural beauty of thesurroundings with the grim circumstances of the characters' lives. At times,her screenplay errs on the schematic side. She seems keener on making polemicalpoints about what fosters racism than in making a drama.
Nonetheless, thedirector elicits impressive performances from her young cast members. StephanieJames captures effectively both the aggressiveness and the vulnerability of thesingle mom taking on what she believes is an entirely hostile world. NathanJones and Gary Sheppeard are such impulsive and likeable types that theirdescent into violence is all the more shocking.
There is a hintof a Victorian morality fable about the way Asante's tale unfolds. AsLeigh-Anne takes more and more wrong steps, she not only risks destroyingHassan's life but also jeopardises any slim chance she might have of happiness.In the final reel, the frenetic fight which opened the film finally begins tomake sense. There is a harrowing and pathetic scene in which Leigh-Anne seemscaught in a daze, incapable of understanding just how misconceived her ownbehaviour has been.
Prod cos: UK Film Council, The Arts Council ofWales, ITV Wales, AWOL Film Prods
UK dist: Verve
Int'l sales: Portman
Prods: CharlieHanson, Patrick Cassaveti, Peter Edwards
Scr: Amma Asante
Cine: Ian Wilson
Prod des: HaydenPearce
Ed: Steve Singleton
Music: David Gray
Main cast: StephanieJames, Nathan Jones, Garry Sheppeard, Dean Wong, Sara Gregory, Oliver Haden,Brenda Blethyn