Reviewer: Kat Kourbeti
Director: Helen Walsh
Stars: Lauren McQueen, Brogan Ellis, Stephen Lord
Out on DVD and digital on 25 July 2016. Special features include: deleted scenes, director & cast interviews, trailer.
Set in the post-industrial wasteland surrounding a Northern council estate, The Violators is the daring debut feature film from novelist-turned-director Helen Walsh. Zeroing in on potent social issues, the film’s narrative is a wild jumble of stories and characters who never quite justify their presence; at first glance it seems confused and unsure of itself, much like the protagonist, 15-year-old Shelly (McQueen), who lives in squallor with her two brothers after testifying against her abusive father. While her older brother spends his time drinking and scraping by on benefits, she spends her days taking care of her little brother, evading social services, and enganging in petty theft around town, aimlessly and hopelessly drifting through life.
After repeatedly pawning stolen items for cash, she attracts the attention of Mikey Finnegan (a wonderfully creepy Stephen Lord), a shady loan shark and groomer who sees Shelly’s misfortune as an opportunity to swoop in as her hero. Shelly’s age never seems to be a problem for Mikey – if anything, she’s just the right type for him: gorgeous and aware of it, but also very vulnerable and unsure of herself. He makes sure to start slow, offering her gifts she won’t take, then slowly becomes more embroiled in her life, stepping in to save her from unsavoury situations, helping her little brother when he’s bullied, and finally offering to find her a new home where the two of them could get away from the desolation of this town. Shelly would be lying if she said she wasn’t tempted – but she’d also be a fool if she admitted that she trusts him.
As their cat and mouse game develops, Shelly is befriended by a mysterious and watchful stranger, Rachel (Ellis), a girl from the richer part of town who becomes increasingly fixated on Shelly for reasons unknown. Dangling their age (and wealth) difference in front of Shelly like an unattainable carrot on a stick, Rachel knows exactly what to do and say to get under Shelly’s skin. It becomes clear that she is as shrewd as Shelly, though probably for different reasons; her multiple acts of larceny are punctuated by a strong moral code, all to do with fidelity and family. When she lets slip her carefully constructed persona for a moment, we find out her reasons for rebellion: her dad has left home, taken a mistress and abandoned her and her mother.
The two girls bond over their lack of strong parental figures – the one thing they have in common despite their many differences – but just as Rachel’s friendly advances begin to turn creepy, the revelation that Shelly’s father may be getting out on parole early forces the story towards its powerful (but very confusing) climax. Deciding to take Mikey up on his word, Shelly gives up her last shred of defense in return for some form of safety, not realising that Rachel’s presense in her life is very much not a coincidence.
This is where it all goes a bit haywire. While the separate story strands build up at a good pace, crucial details are deliberately left obfuscated in an attempt to prolong the mystery. The result is a revelatory finale where everything is happening at once, giving us very little time to process everything, and ending in a climactic moment where some unfortunate editing ruins the resolution of any pent-up suspense and tension built over the course of the film. It’s a right shame, really, as the story itself is not bad at all.
While the film presents an interesting take on the meaning of home (especially in the landscape of such stark economic deprivation, which is regularly seen in the UK), as well as a much needed (and much ignored) look on young girls’ sexuality (a matter so taboo few filmmakers will go near it), the narrative lacks clarity and therefore falls flat, losing its momentum right when it needs it the most. The beautiful cinematography and utterly graceful performances (Lauren McQueen is an absolute gem) make up for some of the convoluted plot, but ultimately it makes for a couple of very confusing and heartbreaking hours, with little emotional payoff to console the viewer in the end – though one could perhaps argue that that was indeed the point.