Tough, funny, moving and totally truthful, “Streetlife” is a sock slice-of-life low-budgeter from the Ken Loach school of working-class drama. Motored by superbly nuanced playing from National Theatre actress Helen McCrory, as a gutsy single mom forced to deal with an inconvenient pregnancy, this BBC Wales telepic deserves wide exposure at Brit-friendly festivals in addition to its small-screen airings. It’s among the best work Welsh-born Karl Francis has done.
Setting is the town of Pontypridd, in the no-nonsense Rhondda Valley region of southern Wales, where Jo (McCrory) works in an all-femme sweatshop ironing clothes. Her life is raw but good: She has a perpetually horny married lover, Kevin (Rhys Ifans), and a young daughter; is studying to improve herself; and has managed to move away from her slobby father (John Pierce Jones) into her own place on a state housing estate.
Only major glitch is the heroin habit of her younger sister Andrea (Ruth Lloyd), whom Jo helps from her paltry income, which she boosts with part-time modeling and phone-sex assignments. But when she discovers she’s 15 weeks pregnant, everything starts to fall apart.
Till now all charm and promises, Kevin starts backpedaling when she springs the news, and Jo later discovers he’s been seeing one of her friends behind her back. Andrea, living with junkies in a squat, just escapes being nabbed by the police. And Jo’s mom falls seriously ill.
Too far gone for a legal abortion, Jo realizes she has to take her life in her own hands, hiding the truth even from her female friends. After giving birth in a remote spot, she kills the child before returning home. But one day the tiny body is found washed up in a river, prompting a high-profile police search for the mother.
Though the pic packs a powerful punch in its closing reels, and reads on paper like a catalog of human misery, it’s a surprisingly easy sit for most of the time. Much is due to the easy-come-easy-go Welsh ambience, plus the salty ensemble playing by the largely female cast, whose talk is as dirty as the clothes they end up ironing. Several lively songs on the soundtrack also keep the mood from sinking into a morass of downbeat grunge.
The key to the movie’s success, however, is McCrory’s character, a defiantly optimistic, unself-pitying type who comes over vividly in the actress’s perf and has the audience rooting for her all the way. Though from partly Welsh stock, London-born McCrory had to learn the accent for the part, and she melds seamlessly with the native cast.
Playing is terrific down the line, from Ifans’ smooth-talking, randy lover, through all the women at the shop, to smaller roles like Pierce Jones’ appalling father and (in the agonizing final scenes) Jeremi Cockram’s young cop who discovers the baby’s body.
Pic began as an improvised piece but later turned into a strictly scripted movie which, though showing traces of helmer Francis’ docu background, has a definite dramatic shape. Tech credits are modest but do the job.