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Entries in Lad: A Yorkshire Story [2013] (1)

Monday
Nov182013

Lad: A Yorkshire Story (2013)

Lost, Found, and Soon to Be Discovered

I saw Lad: A Yorkshire Story at last month's Chicago International Film Festival. Officially, I'm not supposed to review the movie until it opens, but writer/director Dan Hartley is still seeking distribution for his scrappy coming-of-age story--meaning I don't know when it will get a mainstream release (or even a limited one). So consider this a prayer and a heads-up: hopefully, you'll soon be able to see this fine first feature at a theatre near you. In the meantime, keep a close eye on the festival circuit.

Bretten Lord as Tom, a young teen living in rural England. He bides his time playing soccer, annoying his older brother, Nick (Robert Hayes), and exploring the monolithic gray cliffs and quarries peppering the countryside. One day, Tom's mother (Nancy Clarkson) learns that her husband (Liam Thomas) died suddenly, leaving her with two kids and no way to pay the bills. With the bank threatening foreclosure, Tom lashes out by stealing a fertilizer truck and hosing down the branch office.

As punishment, Tom is ordered to assist a community handyman named Al (Alan Gibson) for ten weeks. Lad could have very easily become a Hallmark Channel life-lessons movie, wherein Al dispenses beautifully written prose that magically transforms his young ward into a man. But Hartley, having lived this semi-autobiographical story, understands that rebellion and grieving are far too complex to stave off with platitudes. Al is sensitive to Tom's rough state, but he mostly just puts him to work, giving him a physical channel for his rage and positive, problem-solving avenues to explore with his mind.

Considering Tom's legal troubles aren't the only obstacle he faces during the summer, he can use as much distraction as he can get. Mom goes to school for a truck-driving license, in order to make a decent wage at the quarry (a friend offers her a secretary position, but that woudln't pay enough to keep the lights on). Nick joins the military to escape his small town and hysterical mother. And Al's granddaughter, Lucy (Molly McGlynn), shows up to make things complicated and annoying, as first crushes sometimes do.* Shortly, the only constants in Tom's life are the rock walls he builds with Al and the knowledge that nothing ever stays the same.

There aren't a lot of surprises in Lad, but Hartley isn't out to make a mind-bending childhood epic.** By staying small and simple, he lends his story an air of inverse emotional oppression: from the outside, we recognize Tom's situation as temporary, if he chooses it to be. But subjectively, he's trapped in a cold little town, a million years away from independence, and surrounded by distorted reminders of his fading innocence. Hartley gives the story a soul, but cinematographer David Mackie and composer Samuel Sim give it form by whisking us away to a specific time and place--one that we're as desperate to escape as the protagonist.***

The one thing that keeps Lad from joining the ranks of coming-of-age classics is also one of its selling points: not only is Hartley a first-time feature director, he also populates his cast with first-time film actors. In some cases, as with Clarkson and especially Gibson (the former soldier and hospitality manager answered an open casting call on a whim), he unearths gems whose performances are so touching and naturalistic as to feel like they could not have been cultivated with years of formal training. In others, the actors just miss the mark, and Lord is one of these--not a good sign for a film's lead. Keep in mind, I'm not saying he's a bad actor--just unpolished in a way that some of his co-stars are not, and the contrast can be distracting (hell, Hartley gets much better results here than Clint Eastwood did with Gran Torino).

As for the writing and direction, Hartley does extremely well his first time out. Lad: A Yorkshire Story is a terrific calling card, and I can't wait to see what he will do next--hopefully with an equally personal story as the basis and a solid crew by his side. Of course, he'll need to get his debut feature released first. In a perfect world, audience reaction and festival awards would instantly translate to major distributor attention. But the world isn't perfect. Like young Tom, we'll just have to wait. Here's hoping that someday soon, those gray, gray clouds will part.

Note: Though Lad doesn't have a release date, it does have a trailer. Check it out below, and feel free to follow Hartley on Twitter for updates on his film's journey!

 

*Unfortunately, Tom's mind is too scattered to realize that "annoying" is precisely the wrong way to think of an attractive, older girl.

**Ironic, I suppose, since Hartley cut his teeth as a video operator on the Harry Potter films.

***No, that's not a knock on the movie.