Set a month into Margaret Thatcher’s second term and sharing its title with the last good Clash song, This Is England passionately resurrects the moment of skinhead subculture’s evolution from antiauthoritarian camaraderie into gangish belligerence. It begins on the last day of school: following a rapid-fire schoolyard montage that subliminally sorts its subjects based on their clothes, 12-year-old Shaun (bulldog pup Thomas Turgoose, like much of the cast, a first-timer) is ragged on for wearing flares and a pullover — and for having a father who died in the Falklands War.
Walking home with scratches on his face from the subsequent fight, Shaun falls in with Woody (back-of-the-bus charmer Joe Gilgun) and his band of merry teens: they bring him along for some healthy violence (their demolition job on an abandoned council house alludes to the fallow lower-middle-class Midlands milieu), piss-taking, spliffs and cans of lager, and woodshed makeout sessions with a ditz dressed like Siouxsie Sioux. And he lets them shave his head — Meadows understands the importance of self-definition via cultural signifiers, even building sequences around crucial supporting players Doc Marten and Ben Sherman.
But Woody is a bit of an artful dodger bait-and-switch, soon superceded in the clique’s hierarchy by the much older Combo (sparkplug brawler Stephen Graham). More than once, Meadows spreads his skinheads abreast across the frame, striding in slo-mo like in some Western: next to Gilgun, Turgoose walks with a triumphant bounce; next to Graham, with a fuck-with-me-I-dare-you swagger. Combo embodies a time not dissimilar to today, when the values-politics underclass is pushed farther right, into protectionism and xenophobia, by the ineffectual economic management and colonial-scented war-making of a conservative government; his neo-fascist declarations of absolute loyalty appeal to Falklands half-orphan Shaun.
This father-figure business — Combo even calls Shaun “son” at one point — is pure screenwriter’s conceit: 12-year-old boys will naturally gravitate toward the oldest boys or men who will accept them as friends, whether dad is dead, deadbeat, or at the dinner table every night. Meadows has spoken of the film’s heavy autobiographical basis; as when he brings in Combo to affect a paradigm shift all in one here-I-stand monologue, or calls in strummy emotional reinforcements on a mostly punk-saturated soundtrack, it’s as if he’s resorting to coming-of-age storytelling convention to shape a mess of conflicting memories.
But it’s in the blood: like his fashion-conscious characters, Meadows speaks most eloquently as a curator of loaded artifacts, most notably in his judicious expenditure of jukebox quarters. Before Shaun joins the skinheads, a radio plays Top 40 ubiquities like ‘Tainted Love’; when he puts on suspenders to strut around with Woody’s interracial gang, it’s to reggae standards by Toots and the Maytals and 2-Tone ska by the Specials; as Shaun rides with Combo to a National Front meeting, Meadows plays ‘Oi!’ by the UK Subs, ska’s more aggressive, anarchic nephew; and finally, after a cathartic act of violence leaves Shaun alone on a beach, finally contemplating the fallout from his delinquency in an ending explicitly paralleling The 400 Blows, Meadows uses a Smiths cover as Shaun begins what will surely be an introspective mid-80s adolescence. Like the best parts of the film it concludes, the scene harmonizes bildungsroman and pop anthropology so perfectly that they seem to sing as one.