Doug Liman had already bucked the youth movie trends once with Swingers, which, despite the good looks of Vince Vaughn, painted a believable picture of young men looking for love. One of these (Vaughn) had a slickness that belied the emptiness in his life, and the other (Jon Favreau) was sufficiently introverted and good-looking in an ordinary kind of way so as to believably not have a social life. But Liman's second movie, Go, released at the beginning of a youth-movie explosion, missed the boat. Promising to do for rave culture what Swingers did for the cocktail scene, it poorly aped the story structure of Pulp Fiction and featured a cast of glamorous beauties like Katie Holmes, Sarah Polley, and Scott Wolf. Ravers hoping for a sharply written film they could relate to were let down. Until now. Trust the British to get it right.
Human Traffic, written and directed by 25-year-old Welsh filmmaker Justin Kerrigan, is a sharp, witty, and fast-paced look at the rave life. What it lacks in story (in a nutshell: kids have terrible jobs, weekend comes, kids seek party, kids find party, kids recover from party), it makes up for with sharp dialogue and an amusing Walter Mitty-esque style of periodically showing literal reenactments of characters' thought processes: Employees at a fast-food restaurant start to move like robots; store employees who complain that big business is screwing them are then shown being anally raped by the store manager; and fantasy narrators, such as generic news anchor "Jeremy Factsman," appear out of nowhere to help the proceedings along.
The tone of the piece is set from the opening scene, in which Jip (John Simm), the film's narrator, points out at the audience and complains about how lucky we are, assuming that, unlike him, we don't have "a monumental case of Mr. Floppy, killing me . . . softly." The reason for his impotence is fairly obvious: His mother is a prostitute, and thus his image of sex is far from healthy. Meanwhile, his best friend Koop (Shaun Parkes) has the reverse problem: His testosterone levels are so high that he can be worked into a jealous rage every time his girlfriend Nina (Nicola Reynolds) so much as shakes hands with another man. Add into the mix Jip's platonic friend LuLu (Lorraine Pilkington), an Irish blond bombshell who's constantly attracting the worst kinds of loser; Moff, a cockney pothead with a Star Wars obsession (sigh); and Lee (Dean Davies), Nina's younger brother, who's determined to do drugs for the first time during the upcoming weekend.
All the protagonists have awful minimum-wage jobs (or the equivalent, since Britain has no minimum-wage law), with the possible exception of Koop, an aspiring DJ who works in a record store, pitching albums by artists like "The Itchy Trigger Finger Niggaz" ("They're a bunch of crackheads on death row . . . this is gonna be banned.") to white wannabe hipsters. The only escape is to be had at weekends, via sex, drugs, and rave music (rock and roll being, for all intents and purposes, dead). Thus begins the quest for the party: First, they must all get tickets to the hottest rave in town, then find a place afterwards where sex is likely to ensue. Not that hard, one would imagine. But remember, Jip still has a major hurdle to overcome in the latter department.
Writer-director Kerrigan has a great deal of fun in every locale, whether in the pub before the rave, during the rave itself, at the after-party, or the inevitable comedown the morning after. He even cleverly defuses the inevitable criticism that his film is glorifying drug use: While being interviewed by the BBC for a special on rave culture, LuLu and Nina tell TV reporters that they switched from ecstasy to heroin after watching Trainspotting, and that they smoke crack every time they see New Jack City ("We're just so impressionable!"). We probably could have done without the inevitable scene of stoners discussing Star Wars as a metaphor for drug use -- Kevin Smith can't make this type of thing entertaining anymore, so no one else has much hope either -- but it does indicate the degree to which American pop culture has infiltrated the British Isles. It may depress some and amuse others to note that Koop has Ice Cube and Wu-Tang posters covering his walls, that Moff has a Confederate flag and a "life-size" Yoda standee, that Jip is a big David Lynch fan, or that LuLu watches Jerry Springer. There are a few British pop cultural references that will be lost on Stateside audiences, but the vast majority are American.
And what rave movie would be complete without a hard-pounding soundtrack? Fatboy Slim, Underworld, Quake, Mulder, and William Orbit are among the many artists to be heard herein. Like the dialogue, the beats come fast and furious, and generally add to the whole feeling of trying to cram in a week's worth of partying in the two short days that bookend the drudgery of a workweek. Who among us will not relate to Moff, forced to sit at the dinner table among hostile relatives as he comes down from a night of partying, imagining that he has a remote control with which to make his family speed up, slow down, or turn off altogether? Or Jip's painfully polite dialogue with an acquaintance he doesn't really like, which he then replays in his head the way it should have gone, had they both been honest? Whether or not one attends raves, the script has a lot to say about the human experience in general and the contemporary youth experience in particular. Kerrigan's feature debut is accomplished and impressive, and the cast resemble real human beings, rather than underwear models, in the best way.