Both the beauty and the shortcomings of the coming-of-age sub-genre lies in the fact that your own adolescent transition differs wildly from those sitting beside you. Whilst the films of western cinema from Richard Linklater and John Hughes like to celebrate all its whimsical joys in films such as Boyhood and The Breakfast Club, the reality is that, for many, childhood is simply a tumultuous voyage. The debut feature film from Scottish director Lynne Ramsay, Ratcatcher, illustrates this opposing reality, presenting a story of trepidation, fear and adolescent dread.
Set in Glasgow during the 1970s, the landscape that Ramsay orchestrates is a bleak one, reflecting the realities of those living in the Scottish city who had to survive often without running water or proper bathing facilities. It is a city in disrepair, hindered by a recent binman strike that results in multiple refuse sacks being littered in alleyways and street corners acting as a visual reminder of the locations impending invisibility.
As the world around him breaks down, we follow the everyday life of James (William Eadie) who witnesses the accidental death of his friend at the very start of the film and wrestles with his consciousness throughout the rest of the film. Subtle and dreamlike, Ratcatcher is a slow, poetic journey of the experience of grief from a protagonist who can not yet bear its weight. It’s a contemplative study that picks apart the solemnity of youth with cold precision.
Ratcatcher does not exist however in a void of darkness, as Ramsay does well to highlight life’s bright moments even despite such harsh realities. Communicating James’ grief through stunning, hallucinatory camerawork and uses of magical realism, Ramsay contextualises his story into one that can be universally understood, even by those whose realities differ greatly from the protagonists.
Even in darkness, there is hope, and as James searches for new life past such trauma, he finds it in a nearby town. Breaking free from his social restraints of circumstance he travels to a nearby housing programme that is still under construction. Here, he frolics in the potential of such a reality, leaving behind the clutter of his neighbourhood to curiously explore a new playground, featuring stunning bathrooms sealed in shrinkwrap and fields of golden crops showing a heavenly horizon. In a film that so effortlessly mixes the hope of fantasy and the stark truth of reality, it’s difficult to tell whether such a sequence is even told in truth, or is instead translated through James’ eyes.
Leaping through a large open window frame into a golden field of luscious crops, James embraces the now in spite of the reality he finds at home. Searching for escape as his own community melts into the muddy banks of the dark Glaswegian water, James constructs a mental getaway, a new world of hope, peace and escapism where he hopes he will one day find himself.
Like the very best of the coming-of-age genre, including The 400 Blows and The Last Picture Show, this isn’t just an interpretation of how children come to define themselves, but it is also a reminder of the constant need to evaluate one’s own evolution, even as an adult. The people of Ratcatcher’s slowly sinking Scottish community are all seeking a new life, though they are also longing for the hope and faith that such change will ever come.