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'This Is England'

Shaun is a smart, fatherless 12-year-old who gets picked on constantly, so you worry about him when he falls in with a gang of skinheads. But this is 1983, in the English Midlands, and while these rowdies may not be the sort of pals Shaun's mom would pick for him, they're not stereotypical neo-Nazis either. The gang that adopts Shaun as a sort of mascot listens to West Indian music, mixes occasional vandalism with innocent parties and trips to the ice cream shop, and even has a black gang member, jokingly referred to as Milky.

Filmmaker Shane Meadows was himself a skinhead in his early teens, and as you'll gather from a certain similarity of names — Shane, Shaun — there are undercurrents of autobiography here. Chilling ones, too: If the film's initial portrait of this rebellious youth tribe is more appealing than you expect, change soon tromps in, wearing heavy boots: a 30-year-old ex-con skinhead whose racist, profanity-laced rants change the whole tone of the film.

Writer/director Meadows likes to mix professional and nonprofessional actors, and in this film, his leading non-pro is a 13-year-old who'd recently been rejected for a bit part in his school play. Little Thomas Turgoose doesn't have a bit part here; he's in virtually every scene, and is terrific throughout, especially when the film reaches the Clockwork Orange-style ultraviolence it's been headed for from the beginning. (Recommended)

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.