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The Boys in the Projects

Glen Berry & Scott Neal
Paul Chedlow

Friends in Need: Glen Berry (left) and Scott Neal strike up an unlikely relationship in Hettie Macdonald's "Beautiful Thing."

Life is a little sweeter in 'Beautiful Thing'

By Richard von Busack

ANOTHER TITLE for Beautiful Thing might be Life Is Sweeter; it's an example of what Mike Leigh's movies would look like if Mike Leigh weren't Mike Leigh. A comedic drama of everyday, thick-accented Londoners, Beautiful Thing ranges from kitchen-sink grittiness to the rounded edges of an after-school special. Most of the soundtrack tunes are by avatar of cuddle-core Mama Cass Elliot, whose "Make Your Own Kind of Music" ("Nobody can tell you/ there's only one song worth singing") becomes an anthem for a young boy realizing that he's gay.

Cass' cheeriness matches Beautiful Thing's surface. London looks less grotty than usual, thanks to some not-bad housing project somewhere in Thamesland. The action takes place during a heat wave, and director Hettie Macdonald tries to give the projects a tropical languor. Underneath its candy shell, though, Beautiful Thing offers a realistic portrayal of how mutually antagonistic a single mother and an almost-grown son can be--a portrayal that also includes the mother's brave and backhanded assertion to her gay son: "Somewhere you'll find people who won't want to kill you."

Macdonald's handling of the two boys makes them indistinct. Glen Berry as Jamie handles his adolescent gayness with impossible aplomb; Scott Neal as Ste, the battered neighbor kid Jamie falls for, is also not a memorable actor. Macdonald must have figured out that the tale of the two boys finding each other needed more embroidering; the grown-up characters are far more interesting.

The first-rate Linda Henry plays Sandra, a hard-bitten, goodhearted single mom who supports her son by working as a bartender. She hasn't given up on men but is settling for a spineless hippie manqué boyfriend, Tony (Ben Daniels), whose closest experience to the Age of Aquarius was, as he says, watching the video of Woodstock.

Tameka Empson is delightful as Leah, the short, crazy trollop who likes holding 2am worship services dedicated to the Mamas and the Papas. At one point, while drunk, she asks to be bashed over the head, in honor of a publicity story that such an accident improved Mama Cass' voice. (Let's try it out and see if it works on Alanis Morissette.)

Beautiful Thing is full of unusually thick slang. Sandra's furious response to her son's trying to hide the truth from her--"I never came down with the last shower"--will probably call for a translation: I wasn't born yesterday. For that matter, a Yank might wonder why Sandra is enduring a job interview at a brewery in order to be able to manage a pub: More often than not, breweries own pubs in England, which is why you should always look for "free houses" when you're there.

Beautiful Thing is almost ephemeral. Macdonald's fear of being too depressing means that the film almost evaporates into a "suddenly, all the characters turned gay" finale. I understand the importance, as in Leigh's movies, of having an at least mildly upbeat ending. It's not the happy endings I mind, it's the unlikely ones.

Beautiful Thing (R; 90 min.), directed by Hettie Macdonald, written by Jonathan Harvey, photographed by Chris Seager and starring Glen Berry and Scott Neal.

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From the October 17-23, 1996 issue of Metro

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