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EIFF 2018: Obey (2018) written and directed by Jamie Jones

N.B. This film is not on wide release in the UK at present. It is showing at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on Wednesday 27th and Friday 29th June 2018.

Rioting in the background

Obey is set in London during the 2011 riots and focuses on Leon (Marcus Rutherford), a young mixed-race man who hangs out with his delinquent pals but largely chooses to stay on the straight-and-narrow path himself. Not that his life is easy: he has no job and little real prospect of getting one. He lives with an alcoholic single mother Chelsea (T’Nia Miller) who gets physically abused by her boyfriend Chris (James Atwell). His only way of letting off steam is to visit the local boxing gym.

One evening, while hanging out with his friends, he visits a party at a local squat. While there, he attracts the attention of Twiggy (Sophie Kennedy Clark), a polyamorous bohemian chick who lives upstairs. Once she begins flirting with Leon, however, another partygoer wrongfully accuses him of stealing his mobile phone. This kicks off a fight and results in him fleeing from the house with the rest of his group. Once outside, one of his friends admits to stealing the phone for himself. Leon gets angry and forcibly retrieves it from him in order to return it the next day. This results in him striking up a friendship with Twiggy and becoming involved in the relaxed, unconventional lifestyle that she participates in with her protestor boyfriend Anton (Sam Gittins).

In the background, racial tensions begin to rise after Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old man, is shot dead by police under contested circumstances. This results in a number of riots taking place across the city of London. While Leon’s friends are raring to participate in the cycle of wanton violence, he prefers to stay out of it. However, a number of circumstances occur which ultimately cause him to lose his grip.

Watch a trailer:

The anger of the socially-disenfranchised

Depending on which side of the fence you were sitting on at the time, the 2011 London riots (which ultimately spread to other cities across England) were either an understandable (if hamfistedly articulated) primal scream borne out of the increasing social inequality and injustice which arose from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, or a nightmarishly disproportionate orgy of barbaric acts aimed unfairly at civilians and businesses who would not necessarily have had anything to do with it. I am sure that everyone can agree, however, that they were one of the most notably turbulent events in recent British history.

Obey isn’t so much about depicting the riots itself as it is about examining how socially-disenfranchised young people might be driven into participating in them. Indeed, the riot sequences here are arguably the least impressive part of the film. Some of them involve real-life BBC TV footage shown on the televisions which Leon watches at various points. The staged scenes are visibly low-budget; they involve no more than a dozen or so actors at a time, while the onscreen destruction doesn’t get any more spectacular than the occasional broken window. Moreover, it can be difficult to tell what’s going on at times as they involve more shaky-cam than you can wave a Jason Bourne at.

The film works considerably better during its more intimate social realist-style scenes. There’s a raw immediacy of tone which is evident right from the opening sequence, involving Leon and his circle of friends participating in some hilariously crude banter before one of them decides to break a car window and steal the handbag within. The scenes taking place within our protagonist’s grim family home are truly heartbreaking. He wakes his mother up when he catches her sleeping in the bath after a heavy drinking session. The camera focuses on his anger-strained face as he overhears her being beaten by her scumbag boyfriend during a shouting match. Both Marcus Rutherford and T’Nia Miller give superb, believable performances as they portray the tear-streaked ups and downs of a loving, yet frankly dysfunctional, family relationship.

The scenes between Leon and her (sort of) girlfriend Twiggy, meanwhile, have a serene and dreamlike tranquility which contrasts with the raw brutality of both his home life and those fleeting, anger-relieving, boxing scenes. Sophie Kennedy Clark is alluringly charming as this flirtatious, polyamorous young woman (she seems to be cornering the market in these roles during this particular EIFF as she played a similar character in Lucid) and the viewer can easily see how she could be held out as his beacon of hope. It is all too clear from the film’s otherwise uncompromising tone, however, that the joy won’t last.

Obey is marred a little by its low-budget action sequences and by some overly stereotyped supporting characterisations. Nonetheless, the raw energy and anger on display will leave the viewer walking out of the cinema suitably shaken by the experience.

Runtime: 96 mins

Dir: Jamie Jones

Script: Jamie Jones

Starring: Marcus Rutherford, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Sam Gittins, T’Nia Miller, James Atwell

Rating: ☆☆☆☆

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