The louring skies and flat, scrubby landscape of Norfolk — an English county less frequently caressed on film than its lusher counterparts — lend an atmosphere of eerie distinction to otherwise well-tilled coming-of-age territory in “The Goob.” Guy Myhill’s uninvitingly titled debut feature gets significant mileage out of its golden-hour lensing and the bristly charisma of its younger cast members, but seems torn between manifold narrative possibilities in its story of a 16-year-old lad manning up against his mother’s boorish b.f. Heavy on incident but light on overarching direction, “The Goob” never escapes the sense that Myhill has rolled a number of viable first-film ideas into one, but the more arresting aspects of its construction and setting (notably the region’s raucous stock-car racing scene) should catch the eye of further fest programmers and some boutique distribs.
There are several visual compositions in Myhill’s film — two boys straddling a motorcycle, or smoking side-by-side on the grass — that recall Pawel Pawlikowski’s “My Summer of Love,” another story of ungainly innocence lost against the backdrop of the not-always-balmy British summer. Whether these echoes are intentional or otherwise, Myhill is working in the same register of sensual realism practiced by the likes of Pawlikowski and Andrea Arnold, with abrasive kitchen-skin dramatics counterbalanced by woozy ambient detail. Whenever “The Goob” looks likely to dive headlong into atmospheric or erotic reverie, however, the restless, episodic script steers it in another direction; it’s a film, rather like its frustrated title character, that could stand a little more release.
As it is, young Goob (played by 20-year-old novice Liam Walpole) is only beginning to lash out against a rural existence that asks both too much and too little of him. When he’s not in school, his time is spent helping his single mother Janet (Sienna Guillory) tend to the family’s bleak roadside diner and adjacent pumpkin farm — a setting that resembles a more low-lying version of the Highland gas station that housed similarly stunted teenage dreams in Scott Graham’s comparable 2012 debut, “Shell.” Any paternal presence in the household appears to have been long absent, and it isn’t welcomed when Janet takes up with tattooed stock-car driving champ Gene (Sean Harris), a dim-witted but dangerously abusive figure who makes little effort to mask his seething dislike of the boy.
Their mutual antipathy only worsens after a botched, vengeful prank that wrecks Gene’s prize racing vehicle and lands Goob’s brother in hospital. A summer of unyielding, unreasonable punishment ensues, with Janet effectively asked to take sides. When she fails to stand up to her lover, Goob realizes that he must become his own man, though other alliances are formed along the way — notably with Elliot (sparky standout Oliver Kennedy), a self-possessed gay teenager whom Janet briefly hires to share her son’s workload, and Eva (Marama Corlett), an immigrant farm worker with whom he begins a tentative romance.
The tarnished loyalties between mother and son have the potential for rich, conflict-laden drama, but Myhill is too distracted by multiple intriguing subplots to explore the relationship in great depth. Janet, like all the film’s female characters, is under-drawn, her attraction to the irredeemable Gene (played by Harris with his signature deranged intensity) a mystery from beginning to end. Away from the central triangle, the narrative repeatedly comes to the brink of blossoming in other, exciting directions before shifting focus once more: The arrival of Elliot, in particular, signals flickers of unexpected arousal in Goob before he exits the scene all too swiftly. The rough, muddy machismo of the Norfolk racing circuit is evidently a source of fascination for Myhill (who has previously made a TV documentary on the subject) and lends the film both formal dynamism and a sharp hit of cultural specificity. Yet that, too, recedes into the background in the second half.
Walpole’s unaffectedly gangly, disarming performance keeps “The Goob” on an even keel, though it’s Harris’ name and stark, singular presence that might lure distributors, particularly in the immediate wake of the actor’s celebrated, BAFTA-winning work in TV’s “Southcliffe.” Myhill and casting director Kharmel Cochrane are to be commended for consolidating the film’s strong sense of local color by constructing the film’s ensemble almost entirely from native Norfolk actors, down to former pop moppet Hannah Spearritt (of S Club 7 fame) in a sizable supporting role.
Cinematographer Simon Tindall is the star contributor to an altogether accomplished tech package, his camera consistently identifying a hazy, yellowed beauty in the region’s horizontal vistas without over-prettifying the landscape. Myhill and music supervisor Ed Bailie frequently underscore the desolate nature of the action with contrastingly vibrant song selections, ranging from Northern soul to Donna Summer.