Martin Wallace’s debut feature Small Creatures (2010) is a gritty slice of adolescent social realism that, whilst rich in striking imagery and visual metaphors, fails to effectively combine the dark world of playground brutality with some sumptuous visual diversions. Coggie (Michael Coventry) lives with his mother and sister in a rundown Liverpool council estate, spending most of his time hanging around with his two friends Macca (Paul Bamford) and Ste (Tom Pauline).
Macca, much like Coggie, is shy, retiring and incredibly impressionable. Ste however, is a much more complex character. The product of a fractured domestic upbringing, Ste is the group’s would-be commander, a malevolent young man with an uncontrollable temper and thirst for mischief. Coggie and Macca often find themselves out of their depth when it comes to Ste’s elaborate and often illegal plans. However, when this destructive influence impulsively allows his anger to manifest into a remarkably vicious attack on a local young man, Coggie and Macca realise that they must break free from this vicious cycle of bullying and playground intimidation.
Whilst Wallace’s Small Creatures is commendable in its attempts to add some vibrancy to the formulaic and inwardly looking template of social realism, the director’s execution fails to live up to his ambition. Using a palette of saturated reds and greens to create an ambience of fear and anxiety, Wallace dilutes his unique approach by inserting a myriad of unnecessary visual metaphors clearly inserted to introduce a contrived message of nature vs. nurture. Combining the destructive activities of these wayward teens with images more commonly associated with nature documentaries, Wallace’s aesthetic experiment never properly gels together, culminating in a film that fails to disguise its uninspiring and painfully familiar premise.
The performances of the film’s young protagonists are all of a very high standard and help turn this contrived tale of adolescent disillusionment into something at least remotely watchable. However, when Small Creatures‘ narrative takes a dramatic turn, the motivations behind the character’s petulant actions are never clearly defined. The confounding final act only amplifies the brooding exasperation evoked from the film’s incompatible merger of inconsistently successful artistic flourishes and stark social realism.
Sadly more infuriating than alluring, Small Creatures shows that Wallace is clearly in possession of many of the skills required to become a fine filmmaker, yet seems to lack the ability to fuse his debut feature’s various, ambitious components together with any sense of coherency.
The 66th Edinburgh International Film Festival takes place from 20 June-1 July, 2012. For more of our EIFF 2012 coverage, simply follow this link.