With debut feature Rebels Without a Clue (2009), director and writer Ian Vernon attempts to blend elements of so-called gritty social-realism with black humour, in a film that is about as misguided as it’s unfortunate title suggests. The tag line, “Teenagers with guns, drugs and a cool car. All they need to do is lose their virginity”, doesn’t exactly fill one with hope.
Rebels Without a Clue’s tone being one of slight desperation to attract the teenage, Skins generation via a, shall we say, lack of subtlety and an abundance of brash clichés. It tells the story of four teenagers, who inadvertently interrupt a drug deal and find themselves in possession of drugs, money and a Cadillac. Whilst being tracked by an unnamed thug, they decide to head for Spain in an attempt to escape their current, mundane lives in Manchester.
The key problem with Rebels Without a Clue is the unconvincing and occasionally awkward script. In a film that is primarily centred on an ensemble cast of four, the relationships and the dialogue need to be sharp and engaging if they are to draw one in, yet here, often feels forced and heavy-handed. This is most likely due to the in-authenticity of the interaction between the teens.
What should be an entertaining insight into the lives and minds of a group of teens, ends up sounding like an ill-advised guess as to how this generation communicate. This is no more evident than in the all too frequent moments in which, without exaggeration, almost every character to appear on screen refers to Mark (Rik Barnett) as “Wanker”. If this is an attempt at humour it comes across as, at best, lazy, and at worst, embarrassing, as though throwing in this word every other minute is somehow going to make teenagers laugh. If not, then it may be that Vernon feels that the constant use of swearing adds to the grittiness or the realism…it doesn’t.
Similarly, the cast on offer fails to capture any sense of realism or comedy. With the exception of Lucy Brennan, who plays Kylie, the performances are wooden and uneven to say the least, although, admittedly, they probably weren’t helped by the equally flawed screenplay. The worst offender though, has to be that of Hylton Collins, whose portrayal of the nameless thug chasing the gang really has to be seen to be believed. In a performance that is so cringe-inducingly bad, I am left unsure as to whether it is deliberately intended as part of the humour. Sadly, I don’t think it is. Dressed all in black, with the words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed across his knuckles, the thug should have at least seemed intimidating if only in a comic book sense. Unfortunately, the performance holds more in common with Keith from TV show The Office than a scary gangster type. You can almost feel the energy being sapped from the screen whenever he appears, which is a fundamental flaw, considering that this is the character who really needs to be setting the pace in his pursuit of the gang.
Rebels Without a Clue suffers mostly by failing to create an identity for itself. Described as a black comedy, it barely raises enough laughs to call itself a comedy, whilst also lacking anything one might even remotely consider to be gritty or realistic. Additionally, the lack of any consistent or cohesive characterisation further adds to the overall imbalanced tone of the film. All too often, one feels as though Vernon assumes that by simply combining swearing teenagers with dangerous elements such as drugs or guns is an immediate recipe for success, while the reality is that merely putting these components together without a genuine purpose is destined to disappoint.