Four adolescents in Cardiff, Wales, spend a weekend getting loaded and then coming back to reality – that’s the basic story of Human Traffic, the debut feature from writer-director Justin Kerrigan. What makes these kids interesting is that they are all born talkers: when they aren’t regaling each other with cloudbursts of verbiage, they turn their sights on us, bombarding us with spiels delivered directly to the camera. The movie itself has a raconteur’s style, veering off into asides and digressions before returning to its main theme – the directionless popcorn-machine energy of youth.
Human Traffic begins late on a Friday afternoon as four friends are itching to get off from their various McJobs and work out their frustrations in a round of club-hopping and partying. Jip (John Simm), the narrator, is anxious due to a recent bout with impotence. Koop’s (Shaun Parkes) self-confidence is being poisoned by his fear that his girlfriend Nina (Nicola Reynolds) is cheating on him. Lulu (Lorraine Pilkington), whose yummy blond looks make her a target for love-’em-and-leave-’em Lotharios, is about to give up on relationships, at least with men. Moff (Danny Dyer), in some ways the movie’s emotional focus, is the only character without any romantic prospects whatsoever; it’s no coincidence that he’s both a compulsive masturbator and the heaviest substance abuser among his friends.
It would have been nice if Kerrigan had realized that no backstory is preferable to a weak one, and simply dispensed with these time-killing crises. To its credit the movie knows how artificial these dilemmas are and refuses to dwell on them – even Moff’s drug problem gets laughed away. And Kerrigan’s inexperience (he’s 25) is felt in the opening monologue that introduces his characters, a sequence that’s in your face in all the wrong ways. Characters like Jip’s crowd don’t need a context or to learn any lessons, especially not on a weekend like this one. Kerrigan should have just let his characters shine through as embodiments of their current mood, and only worried about tying up the loose ends.
Human Traffic is best at catching the sound and rhythms of the kids’ pop-informed dialogue, as in a wonderful exchange between Jip and Koop where the actors stop performing and let their real youthful energy take over the scene. At the all-night party the kids go to, Moff and another boy fall into an ecstasy-laced (and perfectly written) discussion about Star Wars. It’s a buggy, elliptical conversation that doesn’t need a capper, but it gets one it in the form of a wonderfully addled insight that seems to just fall out of Moff’s mouth, and leaves both guys reeling in awe.
This is a movie that tries on a little bit of everything before it’s over, for about half of it takes place inside of its characters’ heads. Jip has a William S. Burroughs-flavored fantasy of being reamed by his boss in a scene made hilarious by the comic excess of actor Phillip Rosch. Jif and Lulu drop back in time to Jif’s failed sexual encounter from the previous weekend, and analyze the action (and lack of it) as it occurs. And when Lulu makes a sexual confession to her Aunt Violet, the two women’s secret thoughts are shown to us in subtitles. (Aunt Violet gets the scene’s dry punchline.) You can find antecedents for many of these gags in older movies – the fantasy sequences in Annie Hall are a particular influence – but Kerrigan manages to put his own fingerprints on them.
Human Traffic has some simple but gorgeous visual strokes, as when during their drug trip the kids’ disembodied heads float against a cloud-white background, or when Jip argues with Reality while seated on a couch that hovers amongst the stars in outer space. Kerrigan even invigorates an old trick by picking a perfectly beautiful dawn for his time-lapse sunrise over the city.
Reminiscent of last year’s Go, Human Traffic is a less polished but more heartfelt piece than its predecessor. If it doesn’t believe in its own crises, neither does it resort to slapstick gunplay; it understands that being twenty years old and loose in the world is metaphor enough for danger. It’s more in tune with Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused in its focus on young people’s behavioral patterns and their possession of what James Joyce once called "equal powers of abandonment and recuperation." Human Traffic has the get-on-and-get-off attitude of a two-minute pop-song – it’s just a whiff of nitrous oxide.
– Tom Block