Swaffham Raceway in Norfolk may seem an unlikely inspiration for one of the year’s most auspicious British feature debuts. Yet The Goob writer-director, Guy Myhill, found himself returning to the track having made a documentary on stock-car racing for Channel 4 on the same site. “I think that was probably the seed for it,” Myhill says. “Seeing that world: the sound and the colours but probably more importantly, seeing these men driving round and round and round. Stuck, if you like. That was the very beginning.
“Blokes grow up tinkering and adjusting and when those cars are shot to bits it’s a bit like an old horse going to the knacker’s yard, they go to the stock car track and just smack the fuck out of them.”
This vivid, if uncompromising, description of the stock car world is a fitting introduction to the film Myhill has created. The Goob is a gritty, energetic rites-of-passage tale about a 16-year-old boy who finds himself competing for his mother’s affections with his new stepdad, swarthy racer Gene Womack (played with frightening malevolence by Sean Harris, an old friend of Myhill’s). Goob’s world, beautifully showcased by Simon Tindall’s photography of Norfolk’s huge skies and expansive fields, is by turns idyllic and grim. Goob, played by newcomer Liam Walpole, is on the cusp of adulthood and its hard-won freedom, if only he could escape the imperious Womack, his mother’s transport café and the drudgery of fruit picking.
The Goob (2014)
Walpole was on his way to an insalubrious fried chicken takeaway in Dereham, a Norfolk market town, when he bumped into The Goob’s casting associate, Leanne Flinn, and subsequently landed the eponymous role. Myhill describes his leading man thus: “Liam’s attraction was that he’s got this kind of otherworldly quality. I always describe him as being between Bowie and Spock; Bowie from The Man Who Fell to Earth.” Otherworldly or not, Walpole doesn’t look like the stereotypical teen weakling, weirdo or bully, either on or off-screen. Indeed, when he sits down to discuss the film, he has just been photographed outside a Spitalfields pub for fashion magazine i-D. He aims to pursue his nascent modelling career in addition to any TV or film roles that come up.
In The Goob, Walpole’s role alongside characters such as buoyant Elliot, the hired help who seems to want more than the fast friendship the pair develop, and domineering Womack is often one of reaction rather than action: a telling glance often communicating dramatic weight in a film full of emotional conflict. There are moments of remarkable tension, especially between Goob and Womack. Did Walpole draw on any experiences from his own life when performing?
“My family’s quite a big family and various parts had disputes, so there was a bit of that domestic strife going on. Not directly between close family but [between] distant family members. Even now my family’s split up into different sections because different parts don’t get on with the other half. It’s been going on for a while since I was growing up, so I did relate to [the film’s plot].”
Gene Womack himself may have been created by Myhill but it’s the ever-reliable Sean Harris who brings him to sweating, pugnacious life. Myhill says: “Sean’s from the area. He and I go back a long way and throughout our time out together we’ve known a lot of people like that. He is a bad man. But within that he was also trying to do the best he could.”
The Goob (2014)
There are several scenes where a no-nonsense thug would have exploded into violence. “He could have ripped Elliot to bits but he just wanted to humiliate him. There’s a bit further down the line where Liam’s with Eva the picker, in the van. Again Sean could’ve ripped their heads off but again he [just says] “out!”. He’s got this bullying, tragic side. Whatever demons he’s had to come through himself he’s carrying those like a bag.”
Womack’s reluctance to fully commit to violence stops him becoming a one-dimensional psycho. Instead, there are shades of two other untrustworthy surrogate father figures: Michael Fassbender’s Conor in Fish Tank (2009) and Paddy Considine’s Morell in A Room for Romeo Brass (1999). Harris’s performance leaves as indelible a mark.
There are light moments amid the angst and upset in The Goob. In common with several of the year’s more interesting English-language releases, there is an unexpected and utterly life-affirming dance scene right in the middle of the film. Already 2015 has seen bent, coke-addled coppers frug to Sylvester’s ‘Do Ya Wanna Funk’ in Hyena (particularly hilarious for fans of Denholm Elliot’s reaction to the same song in 1983’s Trading Places); Oscar Isaac cut magnificent shapes to Oliver Cheatham’s ‘Get Down Saturday Night’ in Ex Machina; and we saw Sameena Jabeen Ahmed’s unforgettable bopping to Patti Smith’s ‘Land’ in Catch Me Daddy. But the juxtaposition of Donna Summer, a transport café and tractors is perhaps the most surprising of the lot and a welcome break from The Goob’s heavier moments.
Myhill says: “It was supposed to work on different levels. The other thing I liked was that we’ve got Hannah Spearritt from S Club 7 dancing. There’s a humour away from the narrative. It’s great to move out and surprise and have these changing moods because at times it gets quite dark but it’s nice to puncture that. It was a way of bringing all those characters in and seeing a reconnection between Hannah’s character [Mary] and Liam.”
The Goob (2014)
The Goob, backed by the BFI Film Fund, is in cinemas from 29 May 2015.
His film, funded by the BFI Film Fund in partnership with the BBC and Creative Skillset, shares its cinematic ancestry with a host of coming-of-age tales, but what about the director’s personal taste? “I like those 70s American indies. Things like The Last Picture Show (1971), Two-lane Blacktop (1971). I like The Last Detail (1973); a great film. But then equally, if we’re closer to home, I like those Alain Delon movies and [Jean-Pierre] Melville.”
Myhill is unwilling to name specific contemporary influences but does say, “I think there’s some brilliant stuff being made at the moment and I watch as much of it as I can.” As for what comes next, Myhill is developing another Norfolk-set feature story but can’t or won’t reveal any further details yet. Walpole, meanwhile, has other plans that might shock his happy-go-lucky on-screen persona. “I really wanna play a baddie or a serial killer or something like that. A dark character.”