Arites-of-passage story set around a rough South London housing estate, “Goodbye Charlie Bright” centers on two adolescent boys whose friendship slowly dissolves as they realize that one is headed nowhere while the other is too smart for his environment and must eventually break free. While it starts unpromisingly and charts familiar territory, the film improves as it goes, distinguished by fine performances from magnetic lead Paul Nicholls and his plucky co-star Roland Manookian, both of whom register as young talents to watch. Likely to have a modest theatrical profile, this punchy youth drama should see brighter prospects down the ancillary line.
Story covers a bunch of friends who have grown up together, opening with the lads streaking naked through the estate as a lark during an uncharacteristically hot London summer. The core of this clan is Charlie (Nicholls) and his inseparable chum Justin (Manookian), who shadows him so closely he’s known affectionately as “the wife.” Partnering with Damien (Alexis Rodney), they stay solvent through minor theft operations.
With group member Tommy (Sid Mitchell) off to join the army and Francis (Danny Dyer) busy with his girlfriend, the gap between Charlie and Justin becomes increasingly apparent. Former is alert and intelligent, with a natural curiosity about the world and the sensitivity to acknowledge his sadness over the departure of his father (David Thewlis). Latter, on the other hand, is wild, impulsive and none-too-bright, unwilling to consider the shortcomings of his life and content to settle for what he was born into.
Charlie traditionally leaps to Justin’s defense when he is criticized or ridiculed. But each manifestation of Charlie’s yearning for broader horizons — whether it be his interest in a classy girl new to the neighborhood (Dani Behr) or a chance to work with his flash cousin (Richard Driscoll) in the property game — creates jealousy and friction with infantile Justin.
Script by first-time director Nick Love and co-writer Dominic Eames take a little too long to focus on Charlie and Justin, spreading pic thin with some unimportant peripheral characters and purposeless plot distractions. But the story acquires a more interesting edge as the duo’s differences become impossible to ignore, with one realizing his potential while the other accepts his limitations. When Charlie gets possession of a gun during a house robbery, it appears to telegraph predictable developments, but the violence in the story takes other, less obvious forms that eventually push the two friends apart forever.
What keeps the film on track despite its uncertain start is the nuanced playing of Nicholls — who looks uncannily like a younger Jude Law — and Manookian. Especially in the touching late-reel action, as Charlie is torn between deep-rooted loyalty and impatience over his friend’s stupidity while Justin grows more hurt and desperate at the thought of being abandoned, the two young actors play off each other with great skill and maturity. Thewlis has one poignant scene when Charlie visits his dad and Phil Daniels also makes an impression as a volatile Falklands veteran.
Brisk cutting and a soundtrack peppered with recent Brit hits keep things moving at an even pace. Tony Imi’s sharp widescreen lensing avoids the cliched look of dismal working-class squalor, instead emphasizing the color and warmth of the summmertime setting.