When Marco is beaten up by one of Timmy’s primary school friends the two boys wind up on rival sides of a never-ending cycle of postcode gang war in which there are no winners, only victims.
This is a lyrical, polished yet unflinching film, that delivers the truth about the cycles that drive gang culture and the near-inevitability of its tightening pull for teenage boys and young men.
It’s an increasingly devastating watch, hugely impactful and hard to shake off (I’m not including big spoilers in this review, by the way).
Yet despite its grim subject matter, it’s also entertaining and often funny, as typical teenage life unfolds in parallel with London’s gang crimes explosion (real-life news reports at the start of the film inform us that knife crime is up 34% in a single year).
It’s the first feature from writer-director Andrew Onwubolu, otherwise known as the musician Rapman, who made the hugely successful three-part web series Shiro’s Story in 2014. Blue Story was made with BBC Films for £1.3 million, which is low budget but not micro, and he’s achieved a lot with that money.
The film is dotted with Rapman’s own musical interventions, from his initial appearance sitting on the kitchen counter introducing 11 year old Timmy who’s off to his new school, to later scenes where he raps about what we’ve just witnessed.
It makes Blue Story feel like a play of several acts, with Rapman playwright, narrator and a Shakespearean fool speaking the truth that others tiptoe around.
That means that while the rapping adds a decidedly current edge, as a device that harks back to earlier dramas it also highlights how in some ways this is also just another type of war shovelling up young men seen as disposable.
Timmy (Stephen Odubola) is sent from Deptford to high school in neighbouring Peckham, breaking the links with his old primary school friends. He and Marco (Micheal Ward) become best mates on day 1, but as they head towards their GCSEs street life starts to affect their friendship.
Rival gangs Peckham Boys and Deptford’s Ghetto Boys battle online and on the streets, while being seen talking to the wrong person can see you stamped on, stabbed or shot. These are postcode wars and staying out of it isn’t always an option; you’re with them or against them.
Marco lives with his mum and older brother Switcher (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), who runs the Peckham gang. One night Switcher kills a young Deptford gang member, an act of violence that sees victim Gyalis (Andre Dwayne) choking and spurting blood from his mouth as he dies on the now-deserted street.
Those real life news reports, footage and heartrending devastation of bereaved mothers are already too familiar; yet Blue Story‘s fictionalised deaths and cracking limbs are never less than utterly shocking. There’s nothing numbing about this violence even though it often seems terrifyingly inevitable, tit-for-tat responses to beatings and murders that can stem from innocuous beginnings.
Meanwhile the usual issues of school and teenage life carry on as everywhere: revision and flirting (and revision as flirting), and Game of Thrones binge-watching, are utilised as Timmy slowly gets together with schoolfriend Leah (a beautifully realistic performance from Karla-Simone Spence).
Theirs is a sweet and tentative relationship that quickly blossoms into something more solid, testing Timmy and Marco’s friendship as the latter’s petty jealousies and sneery attitude to women bubble to the surface. Then Marco is beaten up by an old Deptford connection of Timmy’s. Danger turns to catastrophe for the two friends, as the tragedies – whether gang members or not – mount up.
In some ways Blue Story – best friends who eventually end up on opposite sides of an arbitrary line that leaves innumerable young men dead or injured – is an age-old tale. Wars of all descriptions have always taken lives seen as cheap while also offering those same combatants camaraderie and a place to belong.
All that changes is the disadvantage that brings them to the front line. Here the multiple converging storms that consume these kids are racism, poverty, expectations of what a man is, and probably boredom.
Half-way through Blue Story, we fast forward three years, and what started out as a seemingly inexorable descent into gang culture takes a more personally dark turn.
Gone is the teenage wit and infectious shrieks of laughter among schoolkids, replaced with a story of personal revenge and cold, condensed rage.
Despite the increasing and always horrifying violence of the first half of the film, this is a change of tone that sometimes takes the film into something akin to standard thriller territory. It feels very different and sometimes a little wobbly (there are also flashes of sentimentality); though it’s a change handled with conviction by both Odubola and Ward, whose characters now feel more like equals.
Onwubolu still includes sparks of optimism. There are splinters of hope peeling off the turning wheels that drive this culture. And his movie, at only 90 minutes, is tight and spare.
His cast is impressive. Odubola is fantastic as Timmy, always a little too diffident compared to his more rumbustious best friends Marco, Hakeem (Kareem Ramsay) and Dwayne (Rohan Nedd), but with a backbone that means he won’t back down when it would be safer to run. Timmy’s transformation to an adult hardened by pain is as believable as it is heartbreaking to see him continuing the cycle.
Ward, winner of this year’s BAFTA Rising Star award, expertly portrays the always-more-worldly Marco as a cheery kid with an edge waiting to be exploited, and – thanks to his brother – always less likely to be able to escape gang life.
Blue Story is available to buy on digital in the UK from 13 April and on DVD on 20 April.
Watch the Blue Story trailer: