The older boy has a cassette record to play with, like many children of the late ’70s. His toddler brother has no shortage of plastic tools and toys, Legos and the like.
There’s a dog and a parakeet, too. Rich, the oldest, needs a pair of shoes. Let’s go off the shops.
But neglect has many faces, and two parents who seem disinterested at best, wrapped up in their smokes, their drinks and a kitchen sink melodrama they’re too dim to see themselves starring in it have those faces. “Ray & Liz,” their son Richard, “Rich” back then remembers them.
Birmingham “Black Country” photographer Richard Billingham came to fame documenting his parents and their tiny, dysfunctional and circumscribed lives. “Ray & Liz,” his feature film directing debut, shows him still mining their myopia, an adult now with a score to settle.
In 108 spare, harrowing minutes, we see the walls closing in on a family that’s given up, never equipped to deal with the despair of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Ray (Justin Salinger) and Liz (a fierce Ella Smith) are self-absorbed and self-medicating. And their kids, tracked over the course of half a dozen years, are “free range,” raising themselves, trapped in lives with a very low ceiling and inclined to mimic the callous cruelty their parents teach them with every puff of a cigarette.
There’s no back-story here, and no subtitles for these porridge-thick accents. It’s cheating to tell you that Ray lost his last good job, as a machinist, before events in the movie play out. They weren’t always “Council Flats” (subsidized housing) poor, on the dole, living from handout check to handout. But we can tell something took this couple out of the work force and made them all but check out of life as well.
Billingham doesn’t tell us who this “Lol” (Tony Way) is, an oaf of an uncle (perhaps) who does his best Charles Laughton as the Hunchback impression for little Rich’s cassette recorder. As she and Ray and Rich prep to go shoe shopping, Liz makes a naked threat to Lol that suggests a lifetime of conflict. He’d better keep an eye on little Jason. He’d BETTER not get into their liquor.
That’s not remotely as cruel as what Will (Sam Gittins) pulls when he gets home. He’s their lodger, has a touch of just-out-of-jail about him.
And what’s he do when Lol asks about the liquor? He produces a crate of it, gets Lol passed-out drunk and empties his wallet. And oh yeah, Will paints baby Jason’s face with boot polish and puts a carving knife in the child’s hand. Will then beats a retreat, only returning to see Liz’s beat-the-stupefied-Lol to a pulp meltdown over the scene she finds when the family gets home.
A few years later, the family’s fortunes have moved them from a modest duplex to those Council Flats. Rich is a self-sufficient teen, but younger Jason (Joshua Millard-Lloyd) is taking the brunt of this “raise yourself” ethos.
One thing they’ve both absorbed is the cruelty. Joking around, Jason sticks things in passed-out-dad’s mouth, the last of which is powdered punch. Ray almost chokes.
When the power’s cut off, Jason goes on a wander into the cold, dark night. And that gets “the authorities” involved.
Billingham’s film is built on the “kitchen sink” realism born in British cinema in the early ’60s, perfected by the likes of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. It is grim, grey and overcast world and a hard watch, and not just because of those “cold-blooded murder of the English tongue” accents.
Framing the story within the 1990s final years of Ray (Patrick Romer) and Liz (Deirdre Kelly) doesn’t ease that burden. They’re apart, but connected — still drinking (he is, anyway), still selfishly self-absorbed, still badgering cash off each other to purchase some fresh impulse.
The movie memoir “Ray & Liz” most reminds me of is “Running With Scissors,” with “Ray” being a more bleak and humorless look back at a less-than-rosy childhood, less obviously a story told by a son with scores to settle.
But whatever Billingham took from this struggle to make his art, make no mistake –he’s settling a score, here.
The cinematography darkens the tone, the performances — especially Smith, Way and young Millard-Lloyd, revel in reality. And if at the end we feel no more for “Ray & Liz” than they apparently did for their own kids, that’s a final, cruel endorsement of the truth acted-out by all involved.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, alcoholism, profanity
Cast: Ella Smith, Justin Salinger, Deirdre Kelly, Patrick Romer, Joshua Millard-Lloyd, Tony Way and Sam Gittins
Credits: Written and directed by Richard Billingham. A 1091 release.
Running time: 1:48