Packed with filmic references but retaining its own distinct bouquet, “16 Years of Alcohol” reps an impressive helming debut by Scottish writer Richard Jobson weakened by a deja vu third act that adds little new. Based on Jobson’s semi-autobiographical novel about an Edinburgh bad boy in repeated need of anger detox, the highly directed film adopts a semi-impressionistic approach more European than British in flavor, aided by a terrific central performance by Kevin McKidd and painterly lensing by John Rhodes. Festival platforming should lead naturally to strong niche business, so long as critical support and sizable promo are forthcoming.
Despite its title, pic isn’t a downbeat haul through an alcoholic’s life; in fact, there’s very little drinking. Physical violence is what Frankie Mac (McKidd) gets off on.
Striking opening sets up pic’s self-narrated style, with plenty of philosophical v.o. by the main character (“This is a story about hope. Hope and desire.” etc.) as he describes his struggle to break free from a spiral of violence and self-loathing. First seen making a desperate call and then being viciously beaten up by three thugs, Frankie recalls being a boy (Iain De Caestaecker) whose father (Lewis McCloud) was a smooth-talking, womanizer in late ’50s Edinburgh who finally drove his wife (Lisa May Cooper) to leave home.
Stylized opening includes cowboy “duels” between father and son, atmospheric piano doodles on the soundtrack and — in a clear nod to the films of Terence Davies — even a fantasy sequence in which the parents are portrayed as cobwebbed in their own sitting room. The freely associative, poetic tone signals this isn’t going to be just another grungy British pic about young malcontents and petty crime.
Highly cinematic, film-reffy style continues in the third reel as the teenage Frankie is introduced in a blue-lit, nighttime sequence straight out of “A Clockwork Orange.” It’s some time in the early ’70s and, though sans codpiece, Frankie is an Alex clone, with bovver boots, a small band of followers and violent attitude to spare; his other hero is Bruce Lee. The girl he’d like to impress is Helen (Laura Fraser), who works in a small record store.
But Helen isn’t impressed by his loutish manners, so Frankie cleans up his act and tries to swear off violence. Only after he’s stabbed and bleeding from a fight with a former gang buddy, the psychotic Miller (Stuart Sinclair Blyth), does Helen really start to let him in.
However, when Frankie rails, with little provocation, against a snobbish couple in an art gallery, Helen finally dumps him. Back in the gutter, Frankie comes up against Miller again, who gives him, not for a last time, a savage beating.
It’s here that some material on Frankie’s drinking may have been dropped, as he next appears at an AA meeting. One of the members is Mary (Susan Lynch), a wannabe actress, with whom he quickly strikes up a relationship.At the start of this third act, the film starts going round in circles, as there’s little new in Frankie’s struggles, except for a subplot about Frankie mistakenly believing Mary is double-timing him. But “Alcohol” is basically about one thing: a working-class kid from a dysfunctional family who hated his father and needs to get his head in order.
Jobson keeps his audience entertained with an impressive battery of techniques — still montages, dream sequences, voiceovers, poetic musings, refs to other movies — but in the long run, there’s very little psychological depth. A one-scene cameo by Ewen Bremner serves only to add yet another film-buff reference (“Trainspotting,” in which McKidd also played) at a time when the picture should be blazing its own trail.
Still, there’s no denying the overall accomplishment here. With “Alcohol,” Jobson joins a very small club of U.K. directors (including Michael Winterbottom) whose films have a more European sensibility in their ambition and filmic language.
McKidd’s hard-but-sensitive perf motors the movie, sliding seamlessly from physical menace through violent explosions to humorous charm in a career-making performance. (Jobson has already teamed with the same thesp on his sophomore outing, “The Purifiers,” described as “a martial arts gang movie.”)
Fraser, one of Scotland’s most striking young talents, makes a quietly strong vis-a-vis as Helen, and Lynch is OK but less charismatic as the ex-alkie Mary. Popping up now and again as Frankie’s satanic nemesis, Blyth is a forceful screen presence as Miller.
The other star of the film is Scottish d.p. Rhodes, whose widescreen DV lensing is a perfect partner for Adam Squires’ production design, with full, saturated colors and precise compositions that do for Edinburgh what the prologue to “West Side Story” did for New York. (“Alcohol” was extensively storyboarded and looks it.) Transfer from hi-def “Digitalscope” to widescreen 35mm is flawless, with no hint of the result’s DV origins.
Other tech credits are fine, though the varied music ranges from the over-obvious (a “Hallelujah” chorus near the end) to the more subtle.