Endearing and well-rendered, if fairly derivative, this coming-of-age dramedy revolves around three young men who aimlessly bounce around in the titular small town. One of them, our protagonist, Freddie, opens the film interviewing for a job as an insurance salesman, admitting openly to his prospective boss that he does not want to end up as a steel-welding nobody, like his father. His friend, a volatile wannabe rebel living with his alcoholic single father, works at the steel mill, but constantly proclaims his grand intentions to leave town and make something of himself. Their third amigo, a chubby bespectacled geek dubbed “Snork”, complacently works at the train station and adorns himself with rude tattoos in an effort to appear sexually appealing, in vain. As the upstart insurance salesman begins to make a name for himself in his new job, the contrast in lifestyles between his prospective bourgeois existence and his mates’ aloof tomfoolery begins to take its toll on their relationships, and they reach a crossroads as friends that forces them to finally make some big boy decisions about their lives. At the same time, the salesman must deal with his burgeoning crush on his boss’s daughter, who also happens to be engaged to his caddish, cold-as-ice mentor/partner.
The script, written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, who also directed, is not mindblowingly original by any account. The tried-and-true “blue bloods vs. the upper-crust” dynamic is not really given that much new blood here, aside from a graciously emphasized subplot on the role of women at the time. Freddie should learn his lesson within the first 30 minutes, and the rebel friend, as written, comes off more than a little bit haughty and insensitive, particularly once you see how he ends up. However, regardless of the slightly-serious subject matter, Gervais and Merchant remain two funny, charming motor-scooters, and their film has flavor to boot. The relationship between the leads makes for a thoroughly believable friendship, with each member giving the others a good amount of grief, but are almost instantly forgiven; the unspoken feeling that these guys never really seriously considered separating from each other gives the drama more poignancy than the actual plot points. The presentation of poverty is also given an interesting spin, as it does not seem to be anything more threatening or pertinent than a mere barrier between the lower-middle and upper-middle classes; Freddie does not fear struggling for a livelihood, but rather stagnancy and begrudging middle-class complacency. The gags, brushed aside for more subtle, natural methods of exposition and escalation, remain, nonetheless, funny and well-placed, particularly the interplay between the three friends and Freddie’s's family. The romance element takes a hit due to its predictability, but still provides a cute, satisfying throughline to the film.
Another element that makes this film a successful venture is its excellent British cast. The leads are all absolutely terrific; Gervais and Merchant obviously (due to Gervais stature) had the pick of the litter in terms of young English actors, and the three young men they chose are affable and endearing, yet real and conflicted. Tom Hughes, as the volatile, black-adorned Bruce, is a find, with his Nicolas Hoult-esque looks pasted onto his wiry physique providing an interesting modern take on the post-’60s counterculture junkie. The supporting cast is peppered with veterans from the other side of the pond, such as Gervais, himself, as Freddie’s befuddled old man, Matthew Goode, as Freddie’s take-no-prisoners partner/rival, Ralph Fiennes, a riot as Freddie’s bloodless, conservative boss, and Emily Watson, who is absolutely heartbreaking as Fiennes’ beleaguered, constantly ignored wife. Felicity Jones, as Freddie’s love interest (and Fiennes’ daughter), misses her mark with her overly-idealized pixie dream girl, but she is done no favors by the screenplay, and her chemistry with Christian Cooke, as Freddie, carries them over the finish line. It is a testament to the screenplay that these actors were willing to bring their A-game to the production, and its their efforts (as well as truly gangbusters soundtrack) that really set this film apart from the pantheon of small town, coming-of-age flicks.
Recommended for fans of coming-of-age films like American Graffiti, the cast, or Gervais/Merchant, who step out of their comfort zone, and connect far better than Gervais did with the fish-in-a-barrel misfire The Invention of Lying. And I’m not kidding about the soundtrack; aside from one or two overly-obvious choices (yet another use of “All The Young Dudes”, as well as a live cover of Slade’s “Cum On Feel The Noize”), it is filled with thoroughly appropriate numbers that do wonders to establish the time and place of the film.