Review: Low-key drama in the English fenland propels debut feature ‘The Goob’

VENICE – NBC's “The Office” rang frequent laughs from Dwight Schrute's beet farm, with glimpses of backwards Cousin Mose and his feral antics proving particularly fertile ground for comedy (“And as of this morning, we are completely wireless here at Schrute Farms, but as soon as I find out where Mose hid all the wires, we'll get all that power back on.”) This kind of vaguely unsettling boys-on-the-farm vibe is played straight in “The Goob”, a character piece that has atmosphere to spare, and whose minimal plot is helped along by the happily original setting; this might be the first film shot in Norfolk to premiere at Venice.

Self-described as “a psychological Western” and set largely on farmland of sorts in the flat formerly marshy Fens in the East of England (think the reclaimed bits of the Everglades without the redeeming features of exotic wildlife or sunshine), The Goob is a promising debut fiction feature from Guy Myhill. Newcomer Liam Walpole stars as the eponymous Goob Taylor, a gangling oddball youth, 16 years of age, and without apparently all that much on his mind other than avoiding the ire of his mom Janet (Sienna Guillory) and her new paramour, Gene Womack, a tattooed live wire of a man who is prone to sudden outbursts. Sean Harris plays Womack something like a Fenland version of Begbie from “Trainspotting”; a pre-credits highlight sees him interrupted by Goob halfway through grubby sex with Janet.

It is Womack's other passion in life that provides some of the film's most dynamically shot set pieces. An aggressive but talented stock car racer, he regularly thrashes a beat up old motor around an amateur race track at high speeds, in scenes apparently shot live at Swaffham Raceway. These sequences are beautifully and accurately realized and personally surfaced childhood memories I've not accessed in a decade of my dad taking me to see similar races at Matchams track. (We'd eat jacket potatoes wrapped in tin foil and cheer when the cars crashed, which they constantly do in these banger races – that's more than half the point. But I digress.)

Harris is, as ever, a trump card as the villain of the piece. Harris, how do you repel us so? Let me count the ways. He's been creepy as the junkie in Michael Caine vehicle “Harry Brown”, horrifying as child killer Ian Brady in UK TV two-parter “See No Evil: The Moors Murders”, weaselly in the forthcoming “'71” (which premiered at Berlin), menacing in Neil Jordan's “The Borgias” and a nasty piece of work in UK broadcaster Channel 4's excellent HBO-esque UK miniseries “Red Riding”. You get the picture. If you're the director of a murder mystery in need of a Plainview Red Herring (to borrow a phrase from “22 Jump Street”), consider Harris: the man exudes bad news. US audiences will probably be most familiar with him as one of the two idiot scientists in Prometheus who decide to make friends with tentacle – Harris is the one who isn't Rafe Spall. Anyway, he's perfect as the cloud on Goob's otherwise fairly sunny horizon.

There is, of course, a bit of Hamlet bubbling under in this set up; there's the sense that it's not just the fact that Janet has shacked up with someone so manifestly awful that bothers Goob – no man in his mom's life would be especially welcome. On the other hand, Goob is not exactly a complex introspective fellow, devoting at least as much time to pursuing his own romantic goals and larking about as he does to rubbing Womack up the wrong way. At 86 minutes, there's no need to trim the film's runtime, but if you had to for some reason, the obvious candidates would be any one of a number of scenes illustrating carefree youthful spontaneity: Goob and friend laughing and hollering on a motorbike, Goob and friends dancing to Donna Summer, Goob and friends jumping in rivers, Goob and friends raving by a campfire, Goob and romantic interest frolicking in a pumpkin patch… so it goes on.

There's a slight sense of familiarity to these scenes. The specific setting is different, but between Tom Harper's “The Scouting Book For Boys”, Paul Wright's “For Those In Peril”, Lisle Turner's “Here & Now”, Joe Stephenson's “Chicken” et al, the last five years in the UK film scene have seen quite a lot of focus on young male rural weirdoes at odds with the local community. It's not yet a cliche, but any screenwriters about to embark on something in this area would do well to consider what new take they're bringing to the table. Possibly this pastoral wave is a reaction against the slew of gritty urban tales of adolescent male malaise that seemed to characterise the five years before that (“Bullet Boy”, “Shifty”, “Kidulthood” etc).

Nevertheless, “The Goob” is a stylish effort (expect nominations in the London Film Critics' Circle Awards, British Independent Film Awards and the like, though it will probably fly under Bafta's radar), and frankly, any film that provides a reason for Sean Harris do his scrawny wrong 'un thing on the big screen is a film worth making.