I'm usually wary of films that tell me I'm going to have a good time, and in Mischief Night there are several danger signs at the start. There's the bouncy indie-ska-house music; the title lettering that wobbles and judders all over the shop; the cheeky tykes flinging eggs at the camera; and the title itself. Any film that promises mischief had better deliver. Well, Penny Woolcock's film does, abundantly - and its mischief turns out to be far more abrasive than those initial Madness-video touches might lead you to expect.
One of the tougher and more wayward of current British directors, Woolcock made the brutal drama The Principles of Lust and the TV adaptation of John Adams's opera about terrorism The Death of Klinghoffer. She's not likely, then, to turn out an innocuously jolly Britcom. Mischief Night follows on from her two TV films set in Beeston, Leeds - Tina Goes Shopping and Tina Takes a Break - which merged fiction and documentary styles to portray an embattled community. This time, Woolcock recounts a week's events leading up to the titular festivity - a mix of Halloween, Guy Fawkes and Feast of Fools, on which kids (and presumably film-makers too) have licence to turn social order on its head.
Kelli Hollis again plays Tina, now a harassed young mother of three. She lives in a community divided straight down the middle between white and Asian populations, although she can remember a day when things were more mixed. The story begins with Tina's young daughter Kimberley (the pale, strikingly angry-faced Holly Kenny) storming off into the Pakistani part of town, resulting in a broken window, bad blood and Tina's reunion with her schooldays sweetheart Immie Khan (Ramon Tikaram). Then Immie's kid brother Asif (Qasim Akhtar) goes joyriding and smashes into the luxury car of Asian drug don Qassim (Christopher Simpson) - setting the hapless boy up for a lifetime's service to Qassim, dealing smack in the park at night. Similarly, Tina's teenage son Tyler (Michael Taylor) ends up reluctantly apprenticed to his granddad (Gwyn Hollis), the local drug boss on the white side. Career opportunities aren't abundant round here.
As well as distrust between whites and Asians - Tina can't abide Kimberley's friendship with Asif, despite her own closeness to the married Immie - there's discontent within the Muslim community. At the mosque, the older men preach compassion and complain that these days it's "jihad this, jihad that", but they're in danger of being routed by a firebrand young imam who teaches his boys that Bart Simpson is a tool of Satan. He's organising a takeover, so the elders, morally high-toned as they are, want Qassim to bring in some armed muscle of his own: neat moral certainties don't hold in this film's messy, contradictory world.
For all its initial larkiness, Mischief Night soon proves to be dealing with some pretty dark subject matter. Its most alarming image is of a rosy-cheeked baby on a kitchen floor, happily hugging a bottle of bleach, while her mum zones out on smack. Even a sweet, earnest encounter between two kids in a playground is punctuated by one of them casually stopping to pick a used syringe off the ground.
Events finally escalate with a degree of contrivance: Granddad floats off in a hot air balloon; various teenagers head into the night on murder missions; Immie's sister Sarina (Sarah Byrne), facing arranged marriage, takes a cue from As You Like It and disguises herself as a boy; and, proving that Woolcock has no qualms about Going Too Far, a band of small boys cheerfully wanders straight into the home of the local paedophile.
Grubby, gritty and with a reckless heat-seeking attraction to every taboo available, Mischief Night has much of the same anarchic spirit as Paul Abbott's TV series Shameless; in fact, they were both produced by Company Pictures, and Kelli Hollis appears in both. Based on Woolcock's research among Yorkshire communities, Mischief Night takes what might seem a picture of unalloyed grimness, and laughs raucously through it, with a spirit mixing Loachian hands-on realism, Ealing-style public spirit, and a splash of Viz sewer-mindedness.
Sporting the old Film 4 (pre-rebranding) logo, it recalls an earlier school of Channel 4 drama - the sort once represented by Alan Clarke and indeed Woolcock herself - in which the film emerged from the situation and the people, with scant regard for delicacy or commerciality (besides one or two recognisable faces, the cast is largely non-professional and local, with not a sitcom star in sight).
Woolcock delves seriously and compassionately into some of the thorniest areas of modern British life, without a shred of sentiment but in a spirit of provocation and impiety that's incredibly bracing in these cautious times. Mischief Night might not make you split your sides as much as Borat, but in its way, it sails far, far closer to the wind.