These Kids Today
Before he was Mickey “the idiot” Smith on Doctor Who — though not long before — actor Noel Clarke wrote a script for a movie about how urban London teenagers really live. As Clarke explains in the making-of featurette on the Region 1 DVD of the film out recently (it’s been out in Region 2 for a while), Kidulthood was based partly on his own adolescence and partly on how much worse it seems to him things are, just a few years later, for the kids who came after him.
“I’d grown up in the area where the film is set,” in Inner West London, Clarke says, “and I had lived some of that life when I was younger. And I was seeing a lot of young people behaving in what I thought was wilder than the way I used to behave when I was younger, so I [put] some bits of my life together with what I was seeing.” Clarke was also inspired, he says, by the fact that some other examples of pop culture that have been put forth recently as “real” depictions of British urban teenhood are nothing like the actual reality of it.
If you think you’re ready for that actual reality, as Kidulthood sees fit to filter it for outsider eyes, I promise you: you’re not ready at all. This is a brutal, shocking, at times downright revolting film about kids who are, almost to a one, apparently soulless, either deadened to the emptiness of their lives or actively embracing the deadness. That a bare few of them may not be soulless or deadened reveals itself in ways that are tragic, ways that suggest that maybe it’s better to have figured out how to turn off your emotions if you’re stuck in such a toxic environment as this one. The environment isn’t toxic because of, say, poverty or abuse or any other desperate privation, and that’s part of what is so shocking about the film: this is, it suggests, simply the way “normal” teens today behave. I’m talking dangerous physical violence and sadistic “teasing” in school, from the girls as well as the boys, egged on by a level of peer pressure that enforces the depersonalization of everyone who gives in to it, where the teachers don’t see it or, as one moment shows, they may be as scared of the bullies as some of the meeker kids are. I’m talking parents so wrapped up in themselves that they can’t be bothered to get involved when their own child is clearly suffering.
That may be a tad unfair to the particular teachers and parents we see, briefly, in Kidulthood, because the film is so intimately from the kids’ perspective that the adults barely enter into it. That, in itself, is terrifying, too, that these kids have such autonomy to get up to the things they get up to. Drug use is endemic, of course, as is a brand of sexual activity that it would be a step in the right direction to call “casual”: it’s almost random, almost a kind of careless currency to the cheap kind of “cool” these kids aspire to.
I say Kidulthood — the impressive feature debut from director Menhaj Huda — is “revolting,” but I do mean that in a good way: it means the film has achieved a kind of raw honesty that few films reach. The story here unravels over the course of a little over a single day, as a band of teens gets an unexpected day off of school and is set loose on the city, so it condenses a lot of teenage drama and trauma into a short period of time. But if that results, perhaps, in a slight exaggeration of the horrors of the lives of these kids — horrors they don’t even recognize as horrors — then that only makes it a more valuable educational experience for us adults. My teenage years didn’t look anything like this, and I cannot imagine the person I’d be today if they had.
(The sequel, Adulthood, which Clarke wrote and, in his feature debut, directed, premiered in the U.K. in June 2008 and was recently released on Region 2 DVD.)