Bunch Of Fives: Garry Sykes | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Six years ago, film director Garry Sykes released a movie that was made on a micro-budget and went on to do very well. Drunken Butterflies was improvised from scratch by its mostly female cast and is part fiction and part documentary, following a gang of working class teens through 24 hours in the UK city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It’s a film about violence, drugs, infidelity, sex, death, youth, vajazzles, making new friends, the fights we start and the ones we’re forced to finish. It was critically well received and was picked up and broadcast by US channel KCETLink. 

Now, Garry has been looking through footage on the cutting room floor as well as filming brand new material to piece together a new director’s cut that moves away from the ‘scripted reality’ aesthetic of the original, in favour of a more nuanced, character-driven approach. Drunken Butterflies: The Directors Cut is available to rent or download online complete with some added extras, including a behind the scenes look at the making of the film. To watch, click here.

Here, we talk to Garry Sykes about his top five realist teen movies…

The Wanderers 
For The Wanderers, growing up in The Bronx in 1963, your gang was your first line of defence against whoever was after you, be that the skinheads, the law, your abusive alcoholic father, or – most of the time – a bitter rival gang. For this gang of charismatic Italian-Americans, the world is changing around them fast, and if they don’t change with it, it could mean the end of their friendships – and their lives. There was a slew of teen gang movies released in the late ’70s/early ’80s, The Warriors being maybe one of the most famous, but this one is my favourite.

Director Philip Kaufman made the film immediately after the Donald Sutherland/Jeff Goldblum Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers remake, and the suffocating horror movie atmosphere of that film was copied and pasted onto the genuinely terrifying scenes featuring the Ducky Boys, an older gang who vastly outnumber and outgun all the others put together, and are looking to start a war. The dividing lines between the younger gangs are racial, reflecting the atomised state of America in the summer leading up to “I Have A Dream”, and the film traces these divisions from the teenagers on the street, up through the mob boss parents and the segregated wider society that surrounds their world. All mixed in with incredible early ’60s fashions, and the best rock and roll soundtrack of all time, The Wanderers comes across a bit like Grease meets The Wire. I must have watched this film ten times in a row when I first came across it, and it gave me the beginnings of an idea for a film called ‘The Slayers’, an idea that eventually mutated into Drunken Butterflies.

Dazed & Confused
This is one of two films here that was on my favourites list when I was a teenager myself, and one that probably most people have seen at least once. Even though it’s basically 105 minutes of talking, it sucks you in from the first frame, making you nostalgic for a time and a place you almost certainly never experienced – Austin, Texas, 1976, the end of high school and the first big night of the summer. Throughout the film we hang out with the full spectrum of American high school social life, from nerds to jocks, but there’s no real hierarchy here, no villains or victims (except maybe Ben Affleck’s bitter thug O’Bannion), just rich, relatable characters at a turning point in their lives, facing a future where their only wish is to keep the party going and have a good time. 

I think this is one reason why a lot of these films appeal to us well beyond our own teenage years. Those years are the first time most of us face the world on our own terms, with a certain level of freedom, no parents to guide or instruct us, and without too much of the cynicism that later life can bring. I think that time in our lives shapes us, maybe even more than our early childhood. I think in a lot of ways, most of us don’t really ever move far past that point, not really, and whatever tools we go on to develop to deal with the world, however we change to cope with the responsibilities that arrive with adulthood and everything else that comes our way, at our core we remain clumsy, unsure teenagers, hanging out, passing the time, holding out for the last day of school.

River’s Edge
Loosely based on a true teen murder case and the moral panic that followed it, River’s Edge has been called “the darkest teen film of all time”. Flowing beneath the surface of a tedious suburbia is a dark teen underbelly, flooded with drugs, violence, rampant misogyny and hardcore apathy. 16-year-old John kills his girlfriend, basically for the hell of it. His friends rally round, first to gawp at her body, and then to concoct a doomed-from-the-outset plan to cover up the crime and protect their friend. It’s sort of the anti-Stand By Me, as consciences are strained, friendships unravel messily and their plan falls apart, with tragic consequences. It’s a testament to the authenticity and naturalism of the film that instead of being alienated by this horror, we feel like one of the gang, and the film’s cynical nihilism and proto-grunge fashions predicted much of the early ’90s youth culture wave that was just around the corner. Director Tim Hunter would also go on to direct several episodes of another dark, small town drama centred around a teenage murder victim, Twin Peaks.

River’s Edge was Keanu Reeves’ first starring role, and he’s excellent, though the novelty of seeing baby Keanu on screen is slightly lessened by the fact he still looks exactly the same today. To me though, the film’s real star is Crispin Glover, fresh from playing George McFly in Back To The Future (and an Olivia Newton-John impersonator in The Orkly Kid). Glover plays his character Layne as a grotesque, cartoonish pothead, veering from detached amusement to frantic scheming to random bursts of stoned philosophy, his bemused mouth fixed open as if he’s constantly on the verge of saying, “woah”. Several years after River’s Edge, that ’90s teen stereotype was shorn of its rough edges and brought to the mainstream by Bill & Ted in their Excellent Adventure, with the part of Ted Theodore Logan played by none other than Glover’s co-star, Keanu Reeves.

This film tends to be overshadowed by the off-screen events that surrounded it, from the outrage that erupted on its original release, to the tragic deaths of stars Justin Pierce and Harold Hunter. Despite, and because of all that, I think Kids might be the rawest document of teenage experience ever captured in a film. We follow young Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), the nightmare flipside of every American Pie teen hero of the time, on a mission to take as many virginities as he possibly can. All the while, Telly doesn’t realise that he has HIV. 

The film’s script was written by then-19-year-old Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers), who hustled director Larry Clark with VHS copies of his own short films, and got a screenplay commission for his trouble. But while the script’s natural dialogue about millennial sex, drugs and friendship is an essential part of what makes Kids work, the story itself really isn’t that important. It’s more about being immersed in the world of mid-’90s teenage New York, in a film where almost none of the cast are professional actors (with notable exceptions being Rosario Dawson and Chloe Sevigny, both of whose careers were launched by Kids). When the film was released, it was labelled exploitative, leering, sensationalist and widely accused of glamorising teen sexuality, and the film is definitely shocking, even today. However, with characters and performances this brutally honest, open and direct, I think a lot of the controversy was a case of an older audience seeing only what their worst fears instructed them to see in the film, and in doing so, they missed everything these kids were screaming at them from the screen.

Fish Tank
The legend of how then 17-year-old Katie Jarvis was cast in Fish Tank goes that she was having a blazing row on the street with her boyfriend and, when approached by a passing casting director, promptly shouted at them to “fuck off”. Jarvis, as the tortured Mia, owns this film and it’s impossible to imagine it without her presence. Living on the breadline with her younger sister and alcoholic single mother, Mia has a temper and a deep-seated need for something to take her away from all this. She thinks she might have found it in the form of Conor (Michael Fassbender), her mother’s latest boyfriend, who initiates and nurtures a deeply troubling relationship with the young woman.

It is surprisingly rare to see British working class youth portrayed authentically on screen, emotional without being miserable, dark but not patronising, and it’s something I immediately related to given my own background (swapping outer-London for outer-outer-Newcastle). The other four picks on this list all deal with the friendships and gangs and loyalties, but there’s another side of youth that isn’t explored as often, a state we all find ourselves in – and some of us more often than not – which is that of being a loner. The way that Jarvis and director Andrea Arnold bring Mia’s isolated inner world to life is amazing to watch, brimming with an intensity that has rarely been matched (Arnold’s more recent American Honey does occasionally come close). To me, this is one of – if not the – best British movies about adolescence ever made.


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