Human Traffic

Written and directed by Justin Kerrigan

May 10, 2000 at 4:00 am
Given that most film studios have multimillion-dollar marketing budgets with which to target 18- to 25-year-olds, it's astonishing how little they seem to know about the everyday life of those they're supposed to be studying. Drew Barrymore has never been kissed? Please. Rachael Leigh Cook undatable until Freddie Prinze Jr. fixes her up? In which universe? The aforementioned stars all look pretty enough, and that may be what sells the tickets, but it's hard for the average Joe to actually relate, unless we're talking about someone who has truly forgotten what it's like to be young.

Doug Liman has already bucked the youth-movie trends once with Swingers, which, despite the good looks of Vince Vaughn, painted a believable picture of young men looking for love. One of them (Vaughn) had a slickness that belied the emptiness in his life, and the other (Jon Favreau) was sufficiently introverted and good-looking in an ordinary kind of way to believably not have a social life. But Liman's second movie, Go, released at the beginning of a youth-movie explosion, missed the boat. Promising to do for rave culture what Swingers did for the cocktail scene, it poorly aped the story structure of Pulp Fiction and featured a cast of glamorous beauties like Katie Holmes, Sarah Polley and Scott Wolf. Ravers hoping for a sharply written film they could relate to were let down. Until now. Trust the British to get it right.

Human Traffic, written and directed by 25-year-old Welsh filmmaker Justin Kerrigan, is a sharp, witty, fast-paced look at the rave life. What it lacks in story (in a nutshell: kids have terrible jobs; weekend comes; kids seek party; kids find party; kids recover from party), it makes up for with sharp dialogue and an amusing Walter Mitty-esque style of periodically showing literal re-enactments of characters' thought processes. Employees at a fast-food restaurant literally start to move like robots; store employees who complain that big business is screwing them are then shown being anally raped by the store manager; and fantasy narrators, such as generic news anchor "Jeremy Factsman," appear out of nowhere to help the proceedings along.

The tone of the piece is set from the opening scene, in which Jip (John Simm), the film's narrator, points out at the audience and complains about how lucky we are, assuming that, unlike him, we don't have "A monumental case of Mr. Floppy, killing me ... softly." The reason for his impotence is fairly obvious: His mother is a prostitute, and therefore his image of sex is far from healthy. Meanwhile, his best friend, Koop (Shaun Parkes), has the reverse problem: His testosterone levels are so high that he can be worked into a jealous rage every time his girlfriend, Nina (Nicola Reynolds), so much as shakes hands with another man. Add into the mix Jip's platonic friend Lulu (Lorraine Pilkington), an Irish blond bombshell who's constantly attracting the worst kinds of loser; Moff (Danny Dyer), a cockney pothead with a Star Wars obsession (sigh); and Lee (Dean Davies), Nina's younger brother, who's determined to do drugs for the first time during the upcoming weekend.

All the protagonists have awful minimum-wage jobs (or the equivalent, because Britain has no minimum-wage law), with the possible exception of Koop, an aspiring DJ who works in a record store, pitching albums by artists like the "Itchy Trigger Finger Niggaz" ("They're a bunch of crackheads on death row ... this is gonna be banned") to white wannabe hipsters. The only escape is to be had on weekends, by way of sex, drugs and rave music (rock & roll being, for all intents and purposes, dead). Thus begins the quest for the party: First, they must all get tickets to the hottest rave in town, then find a place afterwards where sex is likely to ensue. Not that hard, one would imagine. But remember, Jip still has a major hurdle to overcome in the latter department.

Writer/director Kerrigan has a great deal of fun in every locale, be it in the pub before the rave, during the rave itself, at the after-party or in the inevitable comedown the morning after. He even cleverly defuses the inevitable criticism that his film is glorifying drug use: While being interviewed by the BBC for a special on rave culture, Lulu and Nina tell TV reporters that they switched from ecstasy to heroin after watching Trainspotting and that they smoke crack every time they see New Jack City ("We're just so impressionable!"). We probably could have done without the inevitable scene of stoners discussing Star Wars as a metaphor for drug use -- Kevin Smith can't make this type of thing entertaining any more, so no one else has much hope -- but it does indicate the degree to which American pop culture has infiltrated the British Isles. It may depress some and amuse others to note that Koop has Ice Cube and Wu-Tang posters covering his walls; that Moff has a Confederate flag and a "life-size" Yoda standee; that Jip is a big David Lynch fan; or that Lulu watches Jerry Springer. A few British pop-culture references will be lost on Stateside audiences, but the vast majority of such references are American.

And what rave movie would be complete without a hard-pounding soundtrack? Fatboy Slim, Underworld, Quake, Mulder and William Orbit are among the many artists to be heard herein. Like the dialogue, the beats come fast and furious, and they generally add to the whole feeling of trying to cram in a week's worth of partying in the two short days that follow the drudgery of a workweek. Who among us will not relate to Moff, forced to sit at the dinner table among hostile relatives as he comes down from a night of partying, imagining that he has a remote control with which to make his family, speed up, slow down or turn off altogether? Or Jip's painfully polite dialogue with an acquaintance he doesn't really like, which he then replays in his head the way it should have gone, had they both been honest? Whether one attends raves or not, the script has a lot to say about the human experience in general and the contemporary youth experience in particular. Kerrigan's feature debut is accomplished and impressive, and the cast resemble real human beings, rather than underwear models, in the best way.

Opens May 12 at the Tivoli.