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As children, we all dream of growing up to be something great. For some—those who have the right parents, who come from the right neighborhood—those dreams are well within reach. But for others—those from the wrong part of town—it takes the kind of hard work and dedication of which few are capable. And, as a promising young man discovers in Peter Mullan’s Neds, the pressure to fit in is often too powerful to resist.

As a boy in 1970s Glasgow, John McGill (Greg Forrest) was a timid altar boy who dreamed of becoming a journalist. Despite his family background—including a troublemaking brother (Joe Szula) and an abusive drunk of a father (played by director Mullan)—he was determined to climb to the top of his class.

When he gets older, though, John (played as a teenager by Conor McCarron) learns that his rough upbringing comes with its share of expectations. And after a school friend’s prejudiced mother makes those expectations all too clear, he decides to give in to the pressures around him by joining up with a group of young thugs from his neighborhood.

Neds tells a story that’s all too familiar: a kid with a promising future throws his hopes and dreams away when he gives in to the pressures around him. No matter how many times you’ve seen it all before, though, it’s still tragic—especially since John is such a likeable character. As a boy, he’s quiet and studious—and even a little bit cocky (but only when it comes to his studies). He’s the kind of kid that you want to succeed, no matter what’s going on at home. But, of course, it’s never that easy—and the story follows John in a heartbreaking downward spiral.

Despite its serious subject matter, though, Neds still has a good-natured sense of humor. Instead of dragging its feet through two hours of doom and gloom, the film offers some much-needed comedic touches—often in the form of John’s sarcastic teachers. There are other moments, too, that will catch you pleasantly off-guard—like a brutal fight scene that’s accompanied by an unexpected soundtrack.

Most of writer/director Mullan’s filmmaking is gritty and honest, holding back none of John’s life on the mean streets (or in his even meaner home). But he sometimes wanders off in more fanciful directions—throwing in some strange and completely unexpected imagery (like John street-fighting with Jesus). While it occasionally gives the film a trippy, Trainspotting kind of feel—and it has a pretty obvious point—it still feels completely out of place. And, more than anything else, these scenes are a perplexing distraction from an otherwise hard-hitting drama.

Though the storytelling sometimes drags—and those handful of symbolic scenes might leave you scratching your head—Neds is nevertheless an honest (and sometimes even entertaining) look at life on the wrong side of the tracks. If you choose to watch it, though (and you don’t happen to be from Scotland), I highly recommend watching it with subtitles. I laughed when I first heard that the Indy Film Fest’s version was subtitled—but, considering the film’s abundance of fast-talking teens, the subtitles often come in handy. They allow foreigners like me to focus on the gritty coming-of-age story instead of on translating the dialogue.

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