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Sweet, sour 'Romeo' leaves hard aftertaste

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I can't prove this, but I'm betting "A Room for Romeo Brass" started life as two films, one a breezy adolescent comedy about two best friends, the other a chilling tale about a sadistic, emotionally stunted child abuser.

How else to explain the uneasy dichotomy that makes this an almost impossible film to gauge, much less embrace? "A Room for Romeo Brass" is a film that starts out fun and ends up vile, without any warning (or much of a reason). It's as though director and co-writer Shane Meadows couldn't decide what sort of movie to make, so he made two and just spliced one to the other.

The first half of the film looks in on the friendship between 12-year-olds Romeo (Andrew Shim) and Gavin "Knocks" Woolley (Ben Marshall), neighbors in a London housing project who have become unlikely friends.

Romeo is something of a street tough, although he's more bluster than brawn. He's a bit of a scoundrel, too, the kind of kid who buys a bag of chips for his family's dinner, eats most of them on the walk home, then insists he must have been cheated back at the shop. He's also the man of his house, since his quick-tempered dad has been kicked out by his mom. It's a role Romeo bravely tries to accept, but one he'd give up in a minute, if only given the chance.

Gavin, by contrast, is a mere wisp of a lad, picked on at school because his bad back makes him walk with a limp. His dad hardly ever leaves their house, living a life that essentially boils down to watching the telly and avoiding people.

But the two friends have bonded strongly, and the movie does best when playing out that relationship. The two take each other for granted in ways only best friends can. Both Shim and Marshall are making their feature-film debuts - Shim was born in America and lived in Miami until he was 9, while Marshall has been performing on English radio and television since age 7 - and they handle their roles like old pros; these are real kids up on screen, not some screenwriter's or director's concept. They act irrationally, selfishly and without any regard for what might result from their actions.

Which is pretty much the excuse Meadows uses for shifting abruptly into film B, the dark, threatening one. In the course of their friendship, the boys have made the acquaintance of an odd bloke named Morell (Paddy Considine). Morell's something of an arrested adolescent; he's clueless when it comes to social mores, brags endlessly (without basis in reality) and is awkward around the ladies. The three meet when Morell intervenes in a street brawl that is going badly for Romeo and Gavin, and since then, Morell does his best to become the third Musketeer.

Problems arise when the boys take him at his word and start treating him the way they treat each other, playing practical jokes on him and snickering a lot. When one joke goes too far (at least in Morell's mind), things turn ugly.

It's at this point that Morell turns into someone out of "Friday the 13th," minus the sharp instruments, and the film goes decidedly south. What had looked like a promisingly true-hearted ode to friendship turns abruptly sour. The result is an unpleasant experience that really has no reason to be.

'A Room for Romeo Brass'

Starring Andrew Shim, Ben Marshall, Paddy Considine

Directed by Shane Meadows

Released by USA Films

Running time 90 minutes

Rated R (Language, adult situations)

Sun score: * *

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