London, as most of the planet’s large cities, is in a state of social unrest. Immigration has resulted in race conflicts. Economies are not stable, so jobs are few and far between. Modern politics has been based on Us versus Them causing rifts in populations. Racism, violence and paranoia have been on the rise. In this, a debut feature film for the writer/director, we see the boiling that is going on under the surface that will lead to the race riots in 2011 in the Tottenham area of London.
East London has been a place where all this has cropped up. Teenager Leon (Marcus Rutherford – first film) is in the midst of all this chaos and violence. At home he has to deal with an alcoholic mother (T’Nia Miller – The Disappeared), so as a result he has been in and out of care. As he becomes of age he no longer has to be under care of the state. This gives him the freedom he has so longed for. But it also makes him a target for the gangs operating in his neighborhood. His existence is precarious at best. It is becoming harder and harder for Leon to resist the gang pull as he becomes cognicent that the future he has dreamed of is less and less likely.
At this time a beautiful young woman, Twiggy (Sophie Kennedy Clark – Dark Shadows, Philomena), comes into Leon’s life. Though she is from a different world than he, she is presently living in a squat. Leon falls hard and fast. He loves her party first mentality and thinks it means an opening of possibilities for him. Just as suddenly as she came into his life is as quickly as she no longer wants him around. This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. All the rage he has been feeling now flows to the surface.
A picture of the socioeconomic tundra which London has become is presented to those who come to watch Jamie Jones’ (first feature film) Obey. We see how different the lives of black and white teenagers can be in the same city. Vast. A clear illustration of how something as arbitrary as the colour of your skin can predict how your life will come about. Unfair. As much as we (especially if you are white) would like to believe that opportunity is open for anyone who grabs it, a film like this shows that is really not the case. Injustice defines our lives.
Gender, race and class are put under a microscope here. It is not a comfortable look. Those of us who have choices and can somewhat control our lives do not always understand that certain sections of the population, no matter how hard they try, are wedged into lives lived on the other side of the law. Choice is not a luxury afforded to them. Obey opens our eyes to this and makes us reevaluate those who we might have just seen as criminals. Some are forced down the road of criminality.
Jones’ film starts off for the first almost hour as just a slow set up for the quicker paced last third. Despite the slower pace it is always revealing and significant. A strong aspect of the film is that Jones is able to convey all this without being heavyhanded. Most of the more affecting scenes tend to come out of understated moments. Making the emotions derived that much more deep. The differences between Twiggy and Leon’s lives tend to come at us visually rather than clearly stated.
A big reason that this film is so affecting and successful is the strong performance by the young performer, Marcus Rutherford. His Leon is on screen for almost every minute of the film and someone you cannot take your eyes off. Like the subtle script, Rutherford conveys the emotions of his character via body language and his face/eyes. Without being over the top about it, Leon is the young man to watch.