British film-maker Duane Hopkins arrives on the feature-length scene having being touted by some as “the new Lynne Ramsay”, something of a lazy label routinely applied to any young British director working in the confines of social realism. Set in Hopkins’ native Cotswolds, though this really could be anywhere in rural England, Better Things focuses on the lives of a small set of mostly unconnected individuals: a young heroin user whose girlfriend has just died of an overdose, a pair of recently split teenagers, a reunited elderly couple readjusting to life together, and a young housebound agoraphobe whose elderly grandmother has been moved in to her family’s home.
Hard drug use is prevalent amongst the younger characters, but although it can hardly be said to be romanticized here, it is presented as another escape from drab everyday realities, as much as fast drives down country lanes late at night, playing video games or fumbled, inexperienced sexual encounters. Boredom, the inability to articulate truth and emotions to close friends and partners, and the frustrations of living in a dead-end town all conspire to present drug-use not as a glamorous lifestyle choice nor a squalid retreat but merely a choice that has been made by desperate individuals. The use of a largely non-professional cast, drawn from the region and many of whom having experienced drug problems in the past, gives a feeling that the filmmaker is not being judgemental or condescending towards them or their characters.
The middle-aged are notable by their absence in this setting, and the film largely successfully illustrates the commonality between the feeling of isolation and of being trapped between old and young: the old confined by physical frailty and resistance to change, the young by geography, fear or their own poor economic prospects. Hopkins has a background in short-film making, and early on the apparent disconnectedness of the characters and their seeming lack of development do make the parallel stories feel somewhat like separate projects sandwiched together; as the film wears on, however, there is a noticeable convergence, most obviously in one scene in a park where two of the characters’ stories are beautifully juxtaposed, underlining the central thesis of common isolation across the age gap. There are no easy escapes and answers to these situations, but their possibility is more than hinted at by the close.
I always notice that when travelling through parts of rural England that the dominant, most noticeable objects protruding from the flat landscapes are the spires of the country churches, whose function I imagine in these settings to be closer to what they were many years ago in comparison to the modern role of their urban counterparts. Better Things begins with a funeral service and returns near the end of the story to the same place, yet organized religion and spirituality in general are otherwise in absence from the lives of these characters; given the theme of mortality running throughout the film, and the constant searching for something ‘other’, whether through drugs or physical love, there is clearly the invitation to ponder the implications of the absence of a god from these people’s lives.
Hopkins, with a background in photography, has a superb eye for composition, and it is noticeable that most of the film is shot with a completely static camera, pacing established through carefully controlled editing. Shooting in anamorphic widescreen could easily render a romanticized Constable-like picture of beautiful windswept English landscapes, but there is little of that here; instead, a picture of overcast gloom pervades, the landscape forbidding and chilly, and against which characters are left to roam in their own small isolations. It is this external world that the young agoraphobic Gail appears to be unable to enter, yet the same one that her frail housebound Nan wants to experience once again: perhaps since house interiors are lit in cold blues, painting them as imposing, claustrophobic places, devoid of homely warmth.
Again on a technical note, there is a very effective use of sound design to communicate some of the film’s thematic concerns; music is used sparingly and is entirely diegetic, punctuating the otherwise prevalent silences and sounds of nature only intermittently, showing its use by both young and old as a temporary, unsatisfactory release from everyday boredoms. And during one of their late night burns through the countryside, the unusually candid nature of a conversation between two characters is highlighted when the deafening roar of the car engine is artificially muted on the soundtrack, one of several occasions when sound is manipulated to heighten dramatic effect.
Better Things is a very hard watch thanks both to its unremitting emotionally downbeat tone and its graphic scenes of drug-taking, which will be enough to make it off-limits to all but disciples of the Alan Clarke, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh strand of bleakness. But while not likely to cheer or amuse, the film is invested with such genuine humanism and provides a most delicate, faint sense of hope for its characters that despite its melancholy air I found myself strangely uplifted by it. A very promising debut from a thoughtful, inventive filmmaker.