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Attack the Block | Review

London Inner-city Kids save the World from aliens in British comedian Joe Cornish’s debut

Kids are protective of the little they own. They’re reluctant to let their belongings out of their clutches, and even more covetous of their own turf. In Joe Cornish’s debut Attack the Block, a gang of inner-city London kids takes on space invaders with youthful aplomb and teenage pride. Cornish, formerly known as a comedian in the UK, crafts a story that describes the hardships and shortcomings of the young boys’ lives on a council estate alongside a battle against overgrown, eyeless gorillas with snarling blue fangs and a brain that knows only to attack, and devour. This balance between coming-of-age and sci-fi gives the film a distinct tone, one that doesn’t overwhelm but immerses the viewer in a specific world, one with its own rules and obligations, much like that of adolescence. Oh, and this Audience Award Favorite (SXSW) is a comedy too.

The film begins by casting a harsh light on our heroes as they’re seen mugging a defenseless woman, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), who is talking to her Mum on her way home from work. The thugs, led by Moses (John Boyega), are rude, savage, and without empathy. As Cornish intends it, the audience can’t help but turn against these kids. Then, suddenly, a flash in the sky and a crash on the ground provide the diversion for Sam to make her escape. The boys approach the scene and see what looks like an alien baby or embryo and decide to teach it a lesson. They drag it to an abandoned house and after a brief struggle, they do what makes the most sense to them—blow it up with fireworks. The battle won, Moses and co. drag the alien corpse down the streets of their neighborhood to impress the girls.

This act proves premonitory. Soon a legion of bright blue balls come screaming down from the sky, raining down on the council estate like radioactive hail. Instead of retreating, or calling the police (the enemy!), the kids decide to take the aliens head on with the means at their disposal: a baseball bat, a club, a samurai sword and BMXs as transport. They soon discover that their victim from earlier in the evening is a neighbor and so too have to battle her in an attempt to regain her trust and respect. While it is easy to disregard the maturity, courage, and compassion they extend because of their previous actions, it is nonetheless imperative for her to do so to survive. So, finally, they all band together against the greater evil.

Boyega as Moses is at times frightening, at others daring and always magnetic. He exudes a strength and command that explain why his friends follow him around all the time. His minions Pest (Alex Esmail), Dennis (Frank Drameh), Jerome (Leeon Jones) and Biggz (Simon Howard) provide the backup, and comedic relief. Throughout the film the banter between the boys, done in slang so thick some have called for subtitles (in English…), endear them to us, show their age, but also their good nature. Cornish has taken a backdrop most often used for drama and brutal violence (seen in the films of Shane Meadows or Neds) and turned it on its head, and so infused it with new life: a British sci-fi coming-of-age comedy set on the council estates.

For a film with a reportedly minuscule budget (for an action film), Attack the Block never betrays the genre or its own story. The production design seamlessly blends the seething, drooling monsters and the little touches (the blandness of their apartments, the vibrancy of their clothes) that firmly place us in the boys’ world. And like any thriller, Cornish knows not to show too much. In one scene, one of the boys loses his friends in a smoke filled hallway and, suddenly, the audience is as lost as he is, wandering around blindly. Until then the film has gone at breakneck speed and suddenly Cornish lets the air out of the scene as we breath the smoke into our lungs. After turning around once or twice, he doesn’t know which way to go, and whether any direction is safe. And so, we too are left wandering around in the dark.

Cornish manages to tease out tense moments like these amidst the comedy and violence. The great strength of this film is just that; the melee of genres and emotions do not challenge or crowd each other but rather give the film a layered, rich texture. Despite Sam’s best intentions she can’t help but be won over by Moses and the boys, such is their unique brand of charm. And by film’s end, with everything that has happened, all the kids on the council estate could not help but cheer. If ever given the chance, audiences will too.

Reviewed at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival.

Rating 3 stars

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Jesse Klein (MFA in Film and Video Production from The University of Texas at Austin) is a Montreal-born filmmaker and writer. His first feature film, Shadowboxing, (RVCQ '10, Lone Star Film Festival '10) . As well as contributing to IONCINEMA, he is the senior contributor to This Recording and writes for ION Magazine and Hammer to Nail. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Almodóvar (All About My Mother), Coen Bros. (Fargo), Dardenne Bros. (Rosetta), Haneke (The White Ribbon), Hsiao-Hsien (Flowers of Shanghai), Kar-wai (In The Mood For Love), Kiarostami (Close-Up), Lynch (Blue Velvet), Tarantino (Jackie Brown), Van Sant (To Die For), von Trier (Breaking The Waves)

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