‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ That’s rapper Plan B talking at the start of his first film (written and directed under his real name Ben Drew; the soundtrack album is out next month ). It’s a trick question. He doesn’t want you to be comfortable with this angry, battering ram of a film – set around Forest Gate in east London where he grew up. In his own life, Drew was born with a one-in-a-million talent – like some God-given lottery-win. That, with a bit luck and elbow-grease, got him out of Forest Gate. His film is about the people he left behind: you show me a chav, and I’ll show you a kid who’s been let down, kicked down, abused, excluded. ‘Ill Manors’ isn’t perfect, but it gets under the skin – despairing, brutally eloquent and frighteningly real.
You can almost sense the frenzy of ideas whirling about inside Drew’s head – and his script goes into storytelling overdrive. Everything in the film is true, he says – something he’s read in a newspaper or that’s happened to friend. And it’s relentless, without a chink of hope. A crack-addicted prostitute steals a phone from drug dealer Ed (Ed Skrein). To pay for a new one, he marches her from pub to chicken shop to kebab shop, pimping her out until she can hardly walk (late in the night, bored, he offers two men a 2-for-1 deal). His mate Aaron (Riz Ahmed, brilliant, as ever) is vaguely troubled watching this, but not enough to stop it.
Taking a leaf out of Ken Loach’s rulebook, Drew casts mostly non-pro actors. He’s even given his godfather a role as a fortysomething drug dealer not long out of prison who plies a 14-year-old with crack to get her into bed. There’s at least one plotline too many here (one involving a trafficked sex worker feels tacked on, as does Ed’s scheme to sell a baby). But Drew hammers home the dog-eat-dog psychology on the street. And all the while he shows his characters as children in flashback. Aaron and Ed grew up in care (Ed, perhaps coincidentally, looks strikingly like photos we saw on the news of Baby P, an angelically blond, blue-eyed toddler). When does a vulnerable child stop being a victim, Drew seems to ask? When he picks up his first joint? His first knife? When he looks old enough to steal your phone?
There are plenty of flaws here, but instinctively ‘Ill Manors’ feels important – like some British films of the 1980s (‘Meantime’, ‘Scum’) that spoke of a generation out of work and out of hope. Today’s problems feel more serious (or do we always think that in hard times?). Everyone’s talking about Plan Bs at the moment. I’m not sure this Plan B has all the answers, but he sure as hell knows the problem.