I was lucky enough to stumble across the movie Attack the Block the other day while reading blog posts by Film Crit Hulk. You may have missed this film, as I did, when it was first released. Not only was it given only a limited release in the US, but it came out the Summer of 2011, the same season that saw the release of a competing, American big-budget film, the Spielberg/Abrams joint Super 8.
There are many superficial similarities between Attack the Block and Super 8. Both tell the story of five teenage friends who encounter extraterrestrial life. Both hearken back, fairly deliberately, to 80s kids buddy movies like ET, Gremlins, and Goonies. Both feature characters with difficult home lives. But these films couldn’t be more different in the way they address these adolescent difficulties.
Of course, they’re different in other ways as well. Super 8 is set in an Ohio town in 1979 and features five white kids who stumble across an alien while making a film of their own. At times, the metanarrative about movie making seems as important as the story of the kids themselves. Attack the Block takes place in a council estate in South London. Four of the five primary characters are played by actors of color; all characters are relatively poor. Whereas the heroes of Super 8 are, in many ways, still cushioned safely in the world of childhood, the same can’t be true of the kids of Attack the Block. In fact, when we first meet them, they’re robbing a woman at knife point.
Initially, it may appear that Super 8 is a film attempting to speak more directly to a teen audience–the audience that reads relatively clean YA novels like I Am Number 4 and The Hunger Games. It’s rated PG-13; while there are a few references to pot, and even once instance of drug-use, the kids lead pretty clean lives.
Attack the Block, meanwhile, garnered an R rating, for over fifty uses of profanity, a plot which extensively involves drugs, and fairly gruesome violence. These kids don’t act the way that any parent hopes their children would.
And yet Attack the Block simply talks more honestly about the emotional lives of teenagers. When the slipshod South London street gang, led by a lone wolf named Moses, encounters an alien life form, they decide that there’s only one way to respond: they have to kill it. After taking down the alien, they dangle its body from a chain and parade it through their neighborhood in a display of testosterone-fueled bravado that my husband assures me is completely normal for fifteen-year-old boys. They show their kill off to a gaggle of neighborhood girls who, being a bit more grounded, practical, and mature, roll their eyes. These sequences are rendered with both killer comic timing and unabashed honesty about the (slightly absurd) habits of many teenagers. Even if you aren’t a kid like Moses, you know kids like him–boys who wear a mantle of absolute cool and control, but still never manage to obscure how deeply they crave external approval.
Moses must find a way to hide the alien corpse; he asks a local drug dealer if he can stow it in his weed room. The drug dealer agrees, but in exchange demands that Moses begin dealing for him. It’s a moment of beautiful tension. As an adult viewer, I found myself torn in two directions: first, wondering if this kid might not be finally in over his head, and secondly, reminding myself that he just curb-stomped an alien. The film manages to create a character who is all at once clearly young and, in many ways, vulnerable, but at the same time absolutely capable. In many ways, the remainder of Attack the Block is spent interrogating Moses’ strength.
But it’s a long, long time before we learn its source. Later in the film, we’re shown a montage of the gang as they depart to gather weapons from their houses to battle the alien horde. To our surprise, most of them seem to come from typical families. They give their mothers excuses, call their dogs along. But when we at last see Moses slip inside his flat, the door shut behind him–and stays shut. We know that the fairly normal lives of the other boys have created miniature con artists, pot-heads, whiners, and smooth operators. But all we learn about Moses is the closed door of Apartment 191. It’s a subtle and fairly moving way to hint at some sort of abusive situation.
It’s also very true to the way that many teenagers communicate about emotional pain. Moses very rarely lets on that he feels pain at all, and certainly not about his home life. We see him act out in violence. We see him bravely take command. But we never see him lose face.
And when the secret of apartment 191 is finally resolved–and I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it’s resolved beautifully–it’s very much a moment in keeping with Moses’ character. He still has his pride. In fact, the movie’s ending both depends on his trauma and allows him to transcend it. Moses is able to triumph not in spite of the emotional torment he’s faced in his fifteen brief years on Earth, but because of it. The defense mechanisms he’s built in reaction to his difficult life are precisely what makes him heroic.
I can’t help but compare this to the abuse narrative we find in Super 8. There, main character Joe Lamb’s father has been distant since the death of his mother. Yet Joe lives what is, by all accounts, an utterly normal suburban life. While we’re told by the movie’s ending that he must transcend his grief to resolve the plot, this is never particularly well-argued by the film itself–if only because it’s not entirely clear how this grief has transformed him. In fact, he seems pretty well-adjusted.
A more compelling and honestly rendered account of abuse is found in love interest Alice, played fairly masterfully by Elle Fanning. Alice’s father is an alcoholic who refuses to let her see Joe. When she is discovered, he drunkenly chases her down in a scene that’s easily as scary as any featuring the movie’s monster. Alice’s flight ultimately gets her into trouble, snatched up by the alien. Her reaction to the abuse of her father makes her a liability–not a hero.
By the movie’s end, all is resolved between Alice and her father, though it’s never entirely clear why. Her father has spent the film searching for her, yes, but the fear and tension of the scene between them is never resolved for Alice herself. They don’t talk; Alice doesn’t prove her strength to herself or anyone else. The happy ending isn’t earned for Alice or Joe the same way it is for Moses.
My suspicion is that this is because Super 8 is a movie that aims to talk to parents, not teenagers themselves. It’s parents, not children, who want to know that their mistakes will be easily and neatly be forgiven. Super 8 seems to use the trauma of teenagers, seen through a particularly nostalgic lens, to assure parents that it’s okay–that their children will always love them no matter what. And while this is in some ways a noble goal (there’s no shame in talking to adults nostalgically about childhood or optimistically about their relationships with their children), I’m not entirely sure how successful Abrams is to talking to teens.
Meanwhile, despite the headier and perhaps more objectionable content, Attack the Block manages to do so perfectly, without sugar-coating or condescension. Super 8 might be the kind of clean, nostalgic romp that parents want, but I’d guess that Attack the Block is the kind kids actually need–a story that speaks honestly to them, a story that reflects the genuine pain and humor of adolescence, a story where your trauma doesn’t make you a liability–but, ultimately, a hero.