Mullan points the finger at both school and home: John’s teachers are brutish, ineffective or mad; his father, played by Mullan, floats through the house like an alcoholic ghost and terrorises his mother with his tongue and fists; and his older brother Benny (Joe Szula) is a bully boy with a reputation that protects and defines his younger sibling.
The tale and its themes are familiar, and the most obvious recent comparison is Shane Meadows’s ‘This Is England’ – but Mullan and Meadows are miles apart in tone. Mullan rejects all cosy period tics and music choices and aims for a stark look and feel and a discomfiting clash of styles. Mostly, he goes for straight-down-the-line realism, but he also calls on heightened acting from some actors, such as from himself as John’s father and Gary Lewis as a teacher who gives John a piggy-back, and inserts some sequences of pure, expressive fantasy – one even involving lions. It’s a personal, affecting and pleasingly unusual film, a little too long perhaps and unwieldy in its final stages, but never less than shocking, powerful and utterly relevant.