A terminally ill 15-year-old wants to get laid before meeting his maker in “The Be All and End All,” a working-class British dramedy that hits the sweet spot with its delicate balance of outrageous humor and heartfelt (though never sappy) drama. Producer-turned-helmer Bruce Webb’s no-frills approach highlights the raw acting talent of the young nonpro cast, with the spunky yet fully rounded perfs more than compensating for a somewhat schematic screenplay. Commercial prospects in liberal Euro territories should be reasonably healthy, though pic’s rather frank treatment of teenage sexuality might prove a problem elsewhere.
Like many teens before him, Liverpudlian lad Robbie (Josh Bolt) is really curious about sex, but after he’s diagnosed with a fatal heart condition, he’s afraid he’ll die a virgin. In order to avoid arriving at heaven’s door undefiled, he begs his best mate, Ziggy (Eugene Byrne), to help him find a girl willing to go all the way. But this proves tougher than it sounds, as the bedridden Robbie can’t leave the hospital.
Right through to the end, Webb never underplays the seriousness of Robbie’s condition, though the film also has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and the camaraderie between Ziggy and Robbie feels real. Screenplay, by Steve Lewis and Tony Owen (“Three and Out”), has a straightforward structure dictated by Ziggy’s numerous attempts to find a girl, though the scribes and editor Joe Wilby sap some of the film’s considerable comic momentum with some awkwardly inserted and never fully developed scenes meant to provide Ziggy with his own drama at home.
Pic’s Englishness is evident not only in its use of kitchen-sink realism as a backdrop for sex-related humor, as in “The Full Monty,” et al., but especially in its down-to-earth tone and the way it depicts the teens’ matter-of-fact approach to sex. A U.S. remake by the Judd Apatow factory would perhaps be funnier but would almost certainly lack the required grit and honesty that make this story so endearing, characteristics that also keep the film from tipping into facile melodrama in its more earnest moments.
Young actors Josh Bolt and Eugene Byrne, both from Liverpool, were newcomers when they were cast, and a large part of the pic’s appeal is due to their spontaneous, rough-around-the-edges performances. Though their brogues might need subtitles for non-British auds, there’s an authenticity to their dialogue that helps them define who these characters are. Supporting cast is solid, with TV vet Liza Tarbuck a standout as the stern but ultimately warmhearted ward nurse, Tina.
Tech package is modest but pro. Richard Lannoy’s score adds an atmospheric touch that avoids mawkishness, while Zillah Bowes’ lensing, on 16mm, adds to the pic’s slightly crude, working-class feel.