Peter Mullan’s “NEDS” is a tragic tale about a boy’s journey to adulthood that poses the question of whether we are defined by our social status or defined by our actions.
“NEDS” or “Non-Educated Delinquents” is Mullan’s third outing in the writer-director’s chair, and while there are a few out-of-place ideas, it is a powerful tale. It begins with 10-year-old John McGill (Greg Forest) starting at a new school. He is upset because he’s put in a remedial class even though he has the academic achievements to be in the advanced class. After complaining to the headmaster, John is given the opportunity to move up. The two top-scoring students in the remedial class will be swapped with the two lowest-scoring students of the advanced class. This scene sets up the kind of person that John wants to be, but it isn’t completely clear why he wants to be that way.
One particularly powerful sequence later on makes up for that — marvelously setting up John as someone who wants to transcend his status, making him someone in whom to become invested, and rendering subsequent events much more tragic. After being threatened by a bully, John asks for help from his brother, Benny (Joe Szula), and his local gang. In the middle of the night, Benny summons John to his bedroom window. When he looks out, John can see that Benny and one of his guys have beaten up the bully that threatened him. They ask for John’s verdict, and he signals to let the bully go.
The story then moves forward to when John is an extremely successful high school student. The summer begins and John, now portrayed by Conor McCarron, starts hanging out with Benny’s gang. The camaraderie with the guys gives John a place in which to feel welcome, but he can feel that it isn’t where he belongs. It isn’t until John is banned from his friend’s house because of his social status that John gives in to what everyone sees him as — a NED.
McCarron and Forest do a brilliant job playing their respective ages. Forest brings a great vulnerability to the young John. McCarron is outstanding, especially after he becomes the very thing he didn’t want to become. The things John does are so ruthless and unforgivable, but there is still that vulnerability. The eyes are definitely the windows to our souls, and despite John’s actions I could still see that 10-year-old boy wanting to do the right thing.
“NEDS” is a tremendous example of filmmaking. Mullan has created a character with whom I could completely empathize at moments and for whom, despite his poor decisions, I still rooted for to make the right choices in the end.
I would highly recommend that anyone and everyone watch “NEDS” sooner than later.