A Scottish City of God chronicles the career path of a petty thug on a Glasgow Estate
Set in the dark heart of the Glasgow underworld of the 1970s, NEDS (Non Educated Delinquents) is the latest feature from writer/director Peter Mullan.
In 1972, top of the class, fresh-faced young John McGill leaves primary school on the Cardonald estate in Glasgow, and is at once threatened with violence (the sheer number of four letter words in this threat sets the tone for the language of the rest of the film) by a boy from the secondary school he is set to attend.
Once in big school, John learns quickly that his high grades don’t protect him from either the casual violence and bigotry of the staff – yes, in 1972 Scots teachers did wield the Lochgelly Tawse, a split leather strap used on pupils’ hands, with startling regularity – or from jealous pupils in 'lower' classes.
John soon becomes acquainted with two contrasting but similarly inward looking societal groups. And at home he has an incoherent, drunken father (played by Mullan himself) and a petty criminal bigger brother to deal with.
The latter protects him from both his father and the Neds on the estate, and it is no surprise that by the time he reaches third year at school, John has learned that acceptance into a gang is both more exciting and more necessary for survival than attaining academic grades.
Director and writer Mullan, in this his third feature film, might seem to be straying into Shane Meadows territory, but NEDS is no This Is England. His Neds are not interested in special types of music, clothes or politics.
Even sex seems less important than cheap cider and a fight. Cardonald and its unemployed adolescents are seen as more nihilistic, more terrifying... and yet equipped with that black sense of humour for which Glasgow is famous.
Ironically, Cardonald was built as a model estate with few high-rise flats and lots and lots of specially planted greenery, but that green lung becomes the jungle in which lurk rival gangs. John spirals downward from bright wee lad to befuddled gang member and aspiring gang leader.
When allowed back to school he is 'demoted' from Form 3A to 3R (Remedial), having to share a Portakabin with the dregs, including the boy who had threatened him three years earlier and whom John subsequently battered into a semi-vegetative state.
Apart from some familiar Scottish actors, all the other roles are taken by young non-professionals chosen and coached by Mullan. And they are superbly natural, giving the film an almost documentary feel (think of it as a Glaswegian City of God crossed with Les Quatre Cent Coups).
However, that means that the two big allegorical set pieces – a stoned McGill knife fighting Jesus and a trip to a safari park – seem overly, well, dramatised.
NEDS runs at QFT from January 21 to February 3.