By Miranda Schiller @mirandadadada
Somewhere in the fields of Norfolk, a boy gets off the school bus for the last time, leaving his scribbled-on uniform behind with the cheering boys at the back of the bus. It is the start of a long, hot summer, which this boy, nicknamed the Goob, spends mostly being worked to exhaustion and mistreated by his stepfather Gene.
His mother runs a shabby burger bar, his stepfather grows beets, which allows him to play plantation owner with a group of seasonal workers. Sean Harris plays him with a constantly strained facial expression and tense shoulders, always on the verge of a violent outburst. He is the epitome of a horrible person, masturbating in the car while watching his female workers on the field, mentally torturing his girlfriend’s sons at every opportunity and creating opportunities to cheat on her as much as he can. Goob’s mother somehow sticks with him though, which although not explained, is believable, and Goob seems not to have the heart to abandon his mother and stays too.
Apart from the Goob himself (Liam Walpole), who carries all the teenage disorientation and discomfort concentrated in his almost painfully innocent-looking face, the characters are little more than archetypes. There’s the nasty stepfather, the hapless mother, the exuberant gay guy, the well-meaning but dimwitted neighbour, and the lively Eastern European seasonal worker Eva. A tentative romance develops between her and Goob, but as Gene is intent on destroying everything that might make anyone happy, it ends abruptly, leaving Eva incredulous. Unfortunately all subplots face the same fortune of an abrupt ending, sometimes even before they have really begun.
As a tableau of bleakness and captivity, the film is convincing. The summer heat, the beauty of the landscape and the dreariness of life in it, the feeling of never being able to “leave this shithole” as the bus driver puts it. As a story, it is incredibly frustrating. Maybe this is done on purpose to add to the feeling of directionlessness, but there are whole characters who suddenly just stop appearing without any explanation, there are a few hints at storylines which are never pursued and just vanish in the fields, and it takes a while to even understand who is who and why they are there.
Writer-director Guy Myhill has made a documentary about the Norfolk stock-car race scene before, a scene which features as a second setting in The Goob (Nasty Gene drives a manipulated car and strikes jackpot while Goob makes out with a local girl in a cleaning cupboard). He is visibly enchanted by the both gritty and glorious rural landscape and its inhabitants and creates a half-dreamy, half-suffocating atmosphere. But despite this attentive and detail-loving cinematography, he doesn’t avoid visual cliches. There is a lot of footage of angry young Goob racing along endless roads on his tiny motor-scooter, a cinematic staple for showing discontented rural working-class youth.
The Goob offers an inviting insight into a setting rich with potential stories – but fails to develop them coherently. It is nonetheless a debut worth seeing, and will hopefully inspire more explorations of rural working-class settings.