A Way Of Life (2004) – movie review

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Movie Review by Philippa Sarll

Starring: Stephanie James, Gary Sheppeard, Nathan Jones, Dean Wong, Sara Gregory

Director: Amma Asante

If you like a film that is gritty, deals with serious social issues and does not have a Hollywood happy ending, then A WAY OF LIFE is a film for you.

Teenage single mum Leigh-Anne Williams (Stephanie James) and her posse of young hooligan male friends live harsh lives below the poverty line on the fringes of a Welsh city. For them, petty crime is a means of survival and a way of alleviating the boredom of their poor and limited lives. The harsh realities of their existence hit home to them every day. How can you get a low wage menial job if you do not have the means of transport to get you to work early in the morning? How can you keep your baby’s milk fresh if your fridge is broken and you cannot afford to get a new one? How can you maintain your health if you cannot afford electricity and have damp spreading through your home? Leigh-Anne’s Turkish neighbour Hassan Osman (Oliver Haden) and his daughter Julie (Sarah Gregory) seem to have everything that Leigh-Anne doesn’t – a happy relationship, a new carpet, electricity. Emphasising all that Leigh-Anne lacks in her own dismal existence the Osmans become the focus for her bitterness and, after a series of mishaps, misadventures and misinterpretations Hassan Osman becomes the victim of Leigh-Anne’s spiralling hatred in a vicious racist attack.

First time director Amma Asante skilfully elicits natural performances from an unknown teenage cast. Stephanie James, as Leigh-Anne Williams, gives a mature, believable performance as the young mum who is a victim of her own circumstances and bad decisions. She is strongly supported by Nathan Jones, Gary Sheppeard and Dean Wong as the gang of boys led into the film’s brutality. Anyone who has ever felt intimidated walking by a gang of teenagers on the street will want to cross the road to avoid confrontation with this gang.

It is sad to see that there are no positive adult role models in Leigh-Anne’s world. The grandmother of her baby (Brenda Blethyn) is critical of Leigh-Anne’s mothering skills and rather than offering support and patience just helps to escalate Leigh-Anne’s feelings of worthlessness and antagonises her further. Although limited, Leigh-Anne has choices and consistently makes bad ones which have tragic results.

At a time when the British press is fuelling the debate on asylum seekers and increasingly reporting race related attacks, Asante has produced a timely and brave piece of filmmaking. A WAY OF LIFE makes for uncomfortable viewing. The brutal attack on Hassan Osman takes place on a peaceful, leafy suburban street. No help is forthcoming, no curtain twitches. This is not a fictional situation at all, but a reality and this film should serve as a wake up call to us all.

4 out of 6 stars