‘Shifty’s a film which could have been painfully pretentious from start to finish. It’s so laden with meaning and social commentary, and the opening third is so laden with attitude, that it should have been one to note, but not much more. Wrong. Not only does the film come with two knockout central performances by Daniel Mays and Riz Ahmed, but it actually manages to be quite clever and say a great deal with very little material. The budget was less than £100,000, and director Eran Creevy’s debut feature really knows how to make the most of it. Told largely through the eyes of Chris (a mesmerising Daniel Mays), it’s a day in the life of Chris and best friend Shifty (the compelling Ahmed) after a four year break. As the story unfolds we find Chris had been responsible for the drugs death of a fellow schoolmate, and left to start afresh in Manchester. Visiting now he finds Shifty a crack dealer of some significance, and is confronted by the memories of the life he left behind.
It’s partly a story about redemption, which could have spiralled into a series of clichés about British urban life. That it steadfastly sticks to the character piece it is (despite some meandering) makes it far more watchable. It’s very matter-of-fact without trying to be a documentary, it has vital elements of menace, leaving it entirely unclear if Chris’ ambition to return to Manchester with Shifty can ever be achieved. It is an awkward indictment on 21st century urban Britain too, but it’s well counterbalanced by the revelation that Shifty was a 4 ‘A’-level student, from a good background; Creevy doesn’t offer us any easy answers as to how these characters got so messed up. Helping us investigate, Mays and Ahmed tower above the script and offer us sympathetic and understandable characters. What the script largely misses out, the performances mostly fill in – Mays especially. I thought he’d play second fiddle to the always impressive (and one still to watch) Ahmed, but as the moral anchor to the film he is an almost transfixing presence, even with few lines. Ahmed in turn displays again all the reasons why he too is destined for cinema greatness, as a man so lost he doesn’t even appreciate how much. Shifty too is trapped by his past, and the question is posed repeatedly whether or not he’s now so trapped by the present that he’ll become a victim of it. Thought provoking stuff, and the start of great things to come for all involved in making it. 7.5/10