Dir: Richard Parry. UK. 2001. 90 mins.
South West 9 is aimed squarely at the kids from the British clubbing scene who made a huge hit out of 1999's Human Traffic, also produced by Fruit Salad Films (which, hoping to reproduce that success, has also taken over the distribution of the new picture). Although superficially similar in plot and structure, this is a more ambitious and mature piece which may, for these very reasons, find it harder to reach such a broad audience.
Still, it should initially attract the curious on the strength of the Human Traffic connection and an eclectic soundtrack, featuring reggae, hip-hop and trance music and supervised by Radio One DJ Dave Pearce, which may also ease the way for this most local of tales in overseas markets.
Whereas Human Traffic was set in Cardiff, South Wales, this celebrates the vibrant metropolitan street culture of Brixton in south London (postcode: SW9), once mainly Afro-Caribbean but now a pungent multi-cultural mix of classes and cultures, a small cross-section of which is represented in the film's half-dozen major characters.
Among them: Freddy (Wil Johnson), the songwriter/DJ who also narrates the story; Helen (Orlessa Edwards) a high-flying black merchant banker; Jake (Stuart Laing) and Mitch (Mark Letheren), a couple of likely lads hoping to make a fast buck selling drugs; and Kat (Amelia Curtis), a "crusty", or eco-activist, who slums it in a squat during the week but takes her laundry at weekends to her parents' comfortable middle-class house in suburbia.
Beginning early one Sunday morning at a rave which climaxes in a shooting, the film flashes back to the hours leading up to the incident. This event-packed period includes the theft of Helen's briefcase containing evidence of her bank's dubious activities in the developing world, while Mitch's head is done in when he accidentally gets a massive dose of LSD and Jake gets involved in risky business with an East London thug (Frank Harper).
Some of these performances are extremely uneven - in certain cases embarrassingly so - and there's the sense that writer-director Richard Parry isn't always in total control of the densely packed storylines. As in other British features like Strictly Sinatra, it's a shame that the film's biggest strengths, its vivid characters and atmosphere, are increasingly sacrificed to the mechanics of a mundane gangster subplot.
However, the interest of South West 9 lies elsewhere. The director of Human Traffic, Justin Kerrigan, was 25 and clearly immersed in the clubbing and drug-taking scene he portrayed; indeed some critics complained that his film was a little too enthusiastic in espousing its characters' empty, hedonistic values.
By contrast Parry, in his early 30s, has spent some years as a news cameraman in trouble spots like Bosnia, Zaire and Chechenya. His debut feature is marked by a fast-moving camera which captures the bubbling chaos of one of London's liveliest and most volatile districts with a similar documentary energy. It has a notably critical view of the mind-altering substances, from ganja to crack, taken by the different characters.
It also peppers the story with archive footage of counter-cultural landmarks, from San Francisco's Summer of Love to the Brixton race riots of the 1980s and London's recent anarchist Mayday demonstrations. The effect is to suggest a broader social and historical background beyond a self-obsessed and narcissistic micro-culture for which, as someone in the film says, "North London is another galaxy".
Prod cos: Fruit Salad Films, Irish Screen
UK dist: Fruit Salad
Int'l sales: TBC
Exec prods: Renata S Aly, Marie Louise Queally, Nigel Warren-Green
Prods: Allan Niblo, Michael Wearing
Cinematography: Graham Fowler
Prod des: Rob Lunn
Ed: Christine Pancott
Music supervisor: Dave Pearce
Main cast: Wil Johnson, Stuart Laing, Mark Letheren, Amelia Curtis, Orlessa Edwards, Nicola Stapleton