It's easy to see why feature-debuting writer-director Ben Wheatley's darkly funny but unexpectedly jolting "Down Terrace" has been described as " 'The Sopranos' as if imagined by Mike Leigh or Ken Loach," but the film is so distinctive and idiosyncratic it still feels unique.
It is set largely in a row house in Brighton's Down Terrace neighborhood, well away from the seaside resort's famous landmarks, that is home to Bill (Robert Hill, whose home it actually is), his wife, Maggie (Julia Deakin), and their son Karl (Robin Hill, who co-wrote the script). They and several cohorts have long been involved in an unnamed criminal enterprise. What's important to Wheatley, who honed his craft in commercials and in TV, is to create a rich, unpredictable evocation of family life with its ebbs and flows, rage and tenderness. (It undeniably helps that Robert and Robin Hill are real-life father and son.)
In a stellar moment, Bill delivers a long monologue on his hippie idealism and youthful idolatry of Timothy Leary that evaporated when he realized so many of the acid guru's acolytes were getting rich in the drug trade while he remained poor. This is no typical family of British working-class films. They are articulate, even intellectual. The parents have strong, dominating personalities, and Karl, while outspoken, pretty much does what he is told — until his long-estranged girlfriend Valda (Kerry Peacock) turns up heavily pregnant and declares that Karl is the father. Her appearance sparks in Karl a longing for marriage, fatherhood and independence.
Wheatley's style is elliptical in the utmost, stripped of all conventional expository material, which allows him to concentrate wholly on allowing his characters to emerge vividly as individuals, with all their emotional complexities and contradictions. "Down Terrace" is long on talk but generates its own internal rhythms and pace that makes it feel bracing and vibrantly alive.
"Down Terrace." MPAA rating: R for violence, pervasive language and some drug use. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. Playing at the Sunset 5, West Hollywood.