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British director Julian Richards teams up with his Last Horror Movie cohort actor Kevin Howarth for another go at the reality-thriller-horror genre with Summer Scars. This time however, 'based on a true story' quite effectively replaces the tissue-paper thin conceit from Last Horror, making for affecting, disturbing viewing of high order.
A group of disaffected British youths (including the token girl) have naught to do but nick motor scooters and play in the woods. They're toughs the likes of which boys who identify with Michael Cera might rather be (except Cera keeps getting the girl, so what do I know?) These dudes seem content with bluster and bullying, egged on by tomboy Leanne, (perfectly played by Amy Harvey) until a brash joyride on the stolen scooter accidentally bags 'em a weird transient.
The bum, Peter (Howarth) catches up with the panicked kids, complains of a few broken ribs, and begins luring them into a weird web wherein only bad things can happen. Quickly gaining their sympathy, he asks them to help him look for his dog Jesus, and you know that soon enough pretty much everybody's going to start acting like they know not what they're doing. But will there be enough forgiveness to go around?
This gripping coming-of-age drama, at little more than an hour feels like a modernized '70s grindhouse horror movie - rife with the possibility of graphic cruelty and horrific dehumanization. That such potential atrocities remain mostly just possibilities is a bit of a blessing, as levels of emotional and psychological cruelty are high enough. Still, this circumspect look at wayward British youth - a smart after-school special for the 21st century - feels like Mike Leigh's take on Stand By Me, harsh but sympathetic. Though the kids are more than willing to pummel each other (or anyone else) over the slightest affront, they're full of humanity and poised on a precipice, looking down on a life full of emotionally cut-off anger from a perch where hurt feelings still register instantly on the face.
Throughout, weird, inexplicable layers make for a constantly shifting, engrossing experience. Off his nut hobo Peter's lapses between gleeful, youthful idiocy and violent games prove his instability. But his Svengali-like ability to sort these kids out and play them against themselves and each other (plus Howarth's very natural, yet totally unhinged performance) breaks spirits with chilling plausibility. Ciaran Joyce, Amy Harvey, Jonathan Jones, Darren Evans, Christopher Conway and Ryan Conway (the kids) each in turn dig deep, never seeming like the inexperienced actors some of them are - you believe they just walked off the street and into this movie. Quick, beautiful moments render them real and innocent, making their plight that much more affecting than if they were just cartoons of youth violence. A cell phone call at a bad moment forces two (brothers) to place their dinner order with mum, the way it plays out is both sunny and filled with casual fraternal cruelty - the last already-withered rays of hope on a day when clouds move in to stay.
This gritty, harsh 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is perfect for the subject. From the rousing hip-hop opening, filled with graffiti and posturing, you know you're in for an unflinching look into the dark side of the woods. Colors fit that drab English palette so popular from Mike Leigh's films, bluish and washed out a bit. The image is sharp with nice levels of detail, but gritty and harsh as noted, but compression artifacts aren't a problem.
2.0 Stereo Audio presents soundtrack and dialog in fine form, with no glaring problems revealed from the source. The hip-hop songs (not too many) in the soundtrack aren't overbearing and sound quite good. Dialog is clear, with the only troubles being your individual ability to understand accents. The rest of the soundtrack is fairly sparing, so dynamic range isn't exactly tested for those with better audio processing.
For a shorter feature, Summer Scars packs a good tote bag of extras. In addition to the usual stuff: the Summer Scars Trailer and other TLA releasing Trailers (look out for the obnoxious Danger After Dark promo screens complete with loud scream - but for our troubles we get 4 minutes of trailers for Pakistani zombie/ slasher epic Hell's Ground alone) there is also an auto-or-self-navigated Stills Gallery of about a minute in length. Then, there's a nice 30 minute The Making Of Summer Scars featurette with interviews with all the actors, fight coordinator, director, writer etc. which delves a bit deeper than the usual EPK. Lastly a feature-length Commentary Track with director Julian Richards and producer Sabina Sattar, though at times spare, goes in-depth on the filmmaking process. Casting issues, filming sequentially, ways to get film-look with HD, actor Howarth's trying method process for his role, and word-processing format issues that mess with the length of your screenplay are among notable squibs of information.
Summer Scars' simple story takes youth heading down the wrong path, diverting them onto a path that's even worse. Easy, unforced performances all around make the psychologically awful things that happen to the kids deeply troubling, yet truly gripping viewing. Lean, mean, disturbing and deftly crafted, Summer Scars is definitely Recommended. (And stick through the end credits if you want the full picture.)