Reportedly around 94,000 children in the UK were living in care in 2016. A number that is only on the rise. With children in care four times more likely to suffer from mental health issues, and if left in care sixty times more likely to end up homeless upon leaving, it’s an issue that is long past its tipping point. Writer and Director Lauren Mackenzie decides to uncover this swept-under-the-rug issue with her latest feature thriller-drama We the Kings. Fostered teenager Jack (Elliot James Langridge), is on the run for attempted homicide. He finds refuge in an old mute man’s house, here Jack threatens Victor (Timothy West) and manipulates him into letting him hide away there.
Here the film splits itself into two. Showing Jack’s stressful present tense – avoiding daily nurses visiting Victor and trying to block Victor’s non-stop attempts to rid his home of Jack – while sporadically displaying flashbacks of Jack’s life in care. Particularly focusing on his relationship with ‘Mackie’ (a fellow boy in care), a friendship which reveals a lot about Jack’s character.
Undoubtedly Jack is unlikable at first, but Mackenzie urges an audience to listen to and try to understand his behaviour. 39 percent of male prisoners under the age of 21 have been in care, and here Mackenzie tries to deliver up a more empathetic and explanatory story of youth crime in Britain today. The film unravels itself with touching writing and attentive direction, it’s a thoughtful piece that manages to carefully teeter on the boundaries of thriller and emotive drama.
Admittedly, at times it feels like the film is grasping at strings. With certain points cropping up out of the blue, and its tendency to fall back on quick-spun, black and white clichés regarding emotional trauma. Perhaps revealed quickly as a shock factor, the film would have benefited from taking a slower approach to certain sensitive topics. While it’s a film with a good heart, it leaves an audience desiring a slightly more magnified look at the complex world of children in care.
However, We the Kings’ juggling of emotional vulnerability – found in Jack’s flashbacks – and the heightened suspense of Jack being trapped in Victor’s house is something to be celebrated. This is a film all about duality and revelation. It leads its audience along with small morsels of information but does make the mistake of dumping too much on an audience at once. With some events being revealed in the second act that could have been seeped throughout the rest of the film more carefully. This particularly would have avoided focus on the repetitive cat-and-mouse antics of the first half of the film.
The film finds its strengths in its careful construction and then de-construction of its characters, setting up firm expectations to then take a full-throttle sledgehammer swing at them. The two leads carry the film well, each progressing in their own manner well and knowing exactly when to shift to accommodate the film’s constant unveiling of new information. Timothy West is particularly outstanding in his voice-less performance, effortlessly switching from the helpless old man figure to the aged recluse hoarding a secret.
The stylisation and direction of the film is spot on, Mackenzie fully understands the nuances of the thriller and the drama; two styles she effortlessly sews together. Mackenzie never allows touching flashbacks explaining Jack’s past to deduct from the tense atmosphere of the present-day scenes but instead adds a layer of depth and thought to the ordinary suspense thriller. It would be easy for a feature film set almost entirely in a suburban British home to grow to be a bit of a draining eye-sore, but Mackenzie fantastically used a spectrum of deep blues, chiaroscuro lighting, and vast pops of red to sum up a trapping and unloved place.
Ultimately, We the Kings is a film with good intentions that cleverly manages to manoeuvre between genres and impressively manages to bring empathy to the heart of the thriller film. Although heavy-handed at times, with certain aspects deserving more discussion, it’s a film that unravels to be an interesting and thoughtful take not only on life-after-care but isolation in Britain.
Written by Abi Aherne
All photos © Elemo Films