An easygoing kitchen-sink comedy with an unsettling final act, "A Room for Romeo Brass" reps a quantum leap for rising Brit director Shane Meadows ("TwentyFourSeven") in both texture and accessibility. after this second full-length feature (and his earlier featurette "Smalltime"), there's now little doubt that the self-taught Meadows, 27, is among the U.K.'s most interesting new talents.

An easygoing kitchen-sink comedy with an unsettling final act, “A Room for Romeo Brass” reps a quantum leap for rising Brit director Shane Meadows (“TwentyFourSeven”) in both texture and accessibility. On the grand scale of things, that means only modest B.O. returns are likely for this small-scale character piece about two neighboring families in a Midlands suburb. But after this second full-length feature (and his earlier featurette “Smalltime”), there’s now little doubt that the self-taught Meadows, 27, is among the U.K.’s most interesting new talents.

Once again setting his story in and around his favorite ambit of Nottingham, central England, Meadows straightaway intros two 13-year-old friends, porky black tyke Romeo (Andrew Shim) and skinny white boy Gavin (Ben Marshall), who walks with a slight limp. Opening scene of the pair strolling through a perfectly composed pastoral landscape raises expectations that Meadows has abandoned his usual gritty urban settings and realist style, but as the lively main title and swaggering music kick in, there’s no mistaking the signature.

Romeo and Gavin live in adjoining houses in a featureless working-class suburb. Gavin is the only child of a weak, remote father (James Higgins) and caring mom (Julia Ford); Romeo, the tougher of the two, lives with his attractive elder sister, Ladine (Vicky McClure), and hardened mother (Ladene Hall), who’s been deserted by her violence-prone husband, Joe (Frank Harper).

The boys fall in with a gangling weirdo, Morell (Paddy Considine), who’s like a spaced-out version of Travis Bickle, when he rescues them from a fight. Morell sets his sights on the sexy Ladine, who reluctantly agrees to go out with him, even though she thinks he’s a “gizzoid.” Later, however, Morell shows his darker side, threatening Gavin with dire retribution for a stunt he pulled on him.

Morell befriends Romeo instead, offering him a room at his house when Romeo’s father drops by and upsets the kid. While Gavin is recovering from an operation for his limp, Morell’s influence over Romeo grows, threatening the boys’ friendship. When Ladine finally dumps him, Morell spins out of control.

For much of the time, the movie is a chucklesome portrait of fractionally offbeat types, dryly observed and not straying far from the British realist tradition. Meadows has an ear for dialogue (the accents pose no real problem for North American viewers), as well an affection for his unsophisticated characters that’s close to Mike Leigh, without the latter’s over-exaggeration. Overall, it’s a much warmer movie than “TwentyFourSeven,” not least by simply being in color rather than B&W.

Main problem is Morell’s relationship with Romeo, which, though nicely unsettling, and providing the film’s dramatic impetus, isn’t quite convincing, even within Meadows’ wry universe. The fault lies in the script rather than the performances: Considine does a first-rate job as Morell, moving easily from goofy humor to psychopathic anger, but the movie makes no real case for why the bottom-line Romeo decides to hook up with the weirdo. It’s almost as if a few key scenes got left on the editing floor.

Newcomers Shim and Marshall have a genuine chemistry, and their natural perfs are often a great benefit to the film’s charm. The adults are all well cast and fully drawn, with special kudos to Harper as Romeo’s dad and Ford as Gavin’s mom. As Romeo’s leggy sister, McClure is a real find, with definite screen appeal.

Plentiful use of songs keeps the tempo lively, helped by tight cutting, and Ashley Rowe’s lensing is well appointed without being glossy. Meadows’ buddy Bob Hoskins cameos as a home tutor to the bedridden Gavin, and the director himself pops up early on as a jocular fish-and-chip shop owner.

A Room for Romeo Brass

Production

An Alliance Atlantis Releasing release (in U.K.) of an Alliance Atlantis/BBC Films presentation, in association with the Arts Council of England, of a Company Pictures/Big Arty production. (International sales: Alliance Atlantis, Toronto.) Produced by George Faber, Charlie Pattinson. Executive producers, Andras Hamori, David M. Thompson. Directed by Shane Meadows. Screenplay, Paul Fraser, Meadows.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor prints), Ashley Rowe; editor, Paul Tothill; original music, Nick Hemming; music supervisor, Bob Last; production designer, Crispian Sallis; costumes, Robin Fraser Paye; sound (Dolby), Colin Nicolson, Paul Hamblin; line producer, Ronaldo Vasconcellos; assistant director, Sean Cameron Guest; casting, Abi Cohen. Reviewed at Edinburgh Film Festival (Focus on British Cinema), Aug. 23, 1999. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Contemporary World Cinema.) Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Romeo Brass - Andrew Shim Gavin "Knocks" Woolley - Ben Marshall Morell - Paddy Considine Joe Brass - Frank Harper Sandra Woolley - Julia Ford Bill Woolley - James Higgins Ladine Brass - Vicky McClure Carol Brass - Ladene Hall Home Tutor - Bob Hoskins

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