If there’s one word to describe Callum Newens’ new short film, Teenage Hedonism, it’s confident. A coming of age comedy focusing on a social misfit’s quest to have a summer holiday filled with sex, drugs and general debauchery, the film establishes a clear tone and pace from the get go, and unlike its fumbling protagonist, succeeds with a real sheen and sense of purpose. It’s a comic look at the mundane, dark cloud that seems to hang over adolescence, picking apart the comparisons between expectations and reality with a dark, knowing smirk on its face.
The general narrative of the piece is as loose and episodic as ‘the vast canvas of nothing’ that is Thomas’ summer. Where it appears storytelling strands are developing, or relationships blossoming between characters, the film cuts it short for a new gag. We feel Thomas’ yearning for some sort of meaning and narrative to his summer, a sense that things are going somewhere. But each one of his attempts seem to never quite come to fruition, and he has to start the process again from a different angle. It’s using this endless cycle to add to the comedy, as the more hopeless Thomas’ attempts seem, the more hilariously absurd his ideas to mould his summer become. Even the tragedies that seem to shape Thomas’ life are underplayed in a comically blunt fashion, Thomas himself remarking on the injustice of this. The film becomes a direct contrast to the glamorous, rose tinted teenage years we often see in shows like Skins, wryly satirising its supposedly ‘relatable’ narratives. It’s a lovely use of structure informing character, and one that really does both make you laugh and invest in the Thomas’ perspective.
‘A comic look at the mundane, dark cloud that seems to hang over adolescence, picking apart the comparisons between expectations and reality with a dark, knowing smirk on its face’
The other reason this world feels so real is because of a strong cast. Matt Smith offers a compelling lead performance as Thomas that manages to balance his calculated, monotonous inner-dialogue with genuine vulnerability, giving heart to this oddball outsider. George Fincher’s portrayal as his father also does the seemingly impossible, and makes a student playing an older man seem totally convincing; his world weary, haggard presence really sells the reality of their dynamics. This reality is vital, as their relationship, though only featured sporadically throughout, and one of little words, is the heart of the piece. It also helps that they are surrounded by a confident ensemble – with a film that has such a standout character at its centre, they could easily have been drowned out. Despite this challenge, Will Welford, May Macleod and Roisin McCay all put in memorable performances that stand on their own and help to paint a picture of Thomas’ day-to-day interactions.
This picture is completed in the film’s clear and assured use of visual storytelling. Throughout, Newens and DoP, Scott Tuddenham, use space and sparseness to really generate a feeling of both claustrophobia and vastness that seems to dwarf the characters, giving the sensation of a world that is at once large and scary, and at the same time closing in on them. Whether it be Thomas’ friend Paul against a blank, yellow wall or the constant distance that seems to separate characters, the sense of aimlessness that so irritates Thomas manifests itself on-screen. This often becomes a crux for the comedy, characters constantly trying to navigate their way through it, but always fumbling when they finally seem to; moments of genuine closeness in the film often become farcical and awkward. But perhaps the standout sequence both comedically and technically is the moment when Thomas and Paul attempt to buy cocaine on a university campus, a long take that tracks the characters’ bungled attempt in a genuinely funny, interesting way. This sequence is the perfect example of why the humour in this film works so well – the creatives clearly understand there’s a rhythm and a pace to filming comedy beyond just the script.
‘The main reason the comedy in this film works so well is because the creatives clearly understand there’s a rhythm and a pace to filming comedy beyond just the script’
Where the film slightly falters is when it loses track of this pacing. The film’s best gags are sharp and confident, and occasionally it forgets this, and lapses into moments that meander. These include an overlong dream sequence, and a few jokes that overstay their welcome in the middle of the film. These moments are rather jarring compared to the otherwise consistent pace of the film that with a few more trims, could be rectified. It also is very apparent that the film is influenced by Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, with direct homages including a use of the soundtrack and very similar writing beats. Though this is mostly unobtrusive and meant as an understandable tip of the hat to a film that had a heavy influence, there were moments where I wished Newens would embrace his own style as a filmmaker that bit more. He very clearly has a natural talent for comedic filmmaking, and his own style shines through when he lets it, but I felt the desire to just see him take that step further, and really have faith in his own abilities.
But the fact I want to see more of Newens’ filmmaking is a fantastic thing. This film is smart and there’s a real sense of warmth just underneath its cynicism. There are laughs from the get go, with a first ten minutes in particular that is packed with a series of great gags. Its honesty is really appreciated in response to other films featuring social misfits; it doesn’t attempt to resolve things in the way the main character wants them to, but equally doesn’t wallow with him in his melancholy to the point of self-indulgence. And it’s an absolute pleasure to watch, with a great visual tone, and a likeable cast delivering genuinely great content. I’m really excited to see where this team of creatives go with their next project, and am hoping they’re developing the confidence in their own voices to really embrace their individual creative impulses. XTV certainly has a high bar set for its next year of programming.
You can watch the full film below: