Shifty is being hailed in some quarters as an early contender for best British film of 2009 - a double-edged blessing for any debut, which can rarely hope to live up to the hype, however well intentioned. Shifty isn't the second coming, the one true saviour of UK independent cinema. But it's a very decent little crime thriller, with a lot of heart, that deserves more than a couple of weeks at the repertory before being marooned on DVD.
Chris (Daniel Mays) returns from Manchester to the (fictional) outer London suburb of Dudlowe after four years in white-collared exile. To his surprise, he discovers his old school mate Shifty (Riz Ahmed), the "smart kid in class, four A-levels", has since transformed from a part-time weed merchant into a full blown crack dealer.
Over the next 24 hours, the country mouse accompanies the town mouse on his rounds, supplying everyone from middle-class hippies to dead eyed kids, while being stalked by an increasingly agitated Trevor (Jay Simpson), a broken family man prepared to take his next fix by any means necessary. (Shifty must be selling some uncommonly good gear.) Meanwhile his brother Rez (Nitin Ganatra) is about to kick him out of his house, and double-crossing supplier Glen (Jason Flemyng) is setting him up for a fall. Can Chris convince Shifty to abandon his life at the crack face before he comes a cropper?
'Shifty' sounds like an ITV comedy drama from the late 1960s or early 1970s, no doubt starring Hywel Bennett or Adam Faith as its eponymous lovable rogue; up to no good, but more victim than predator - and that's pretty much the case here. An ocean away from The Wire's corner boys, Baltimore's tooled-up foot soldiers marinated in murder, Shifty's scrappy pushers embody a familiar kind of hapless Englishness; the sort who might shut up shop for a day, owing to the wrong kind of snow on the road. Yet for all its lively banter ("I can't believe you just sold crack to Miss Marple and struck a deal with Blazin' Squad") the film is no quirky apologia for crime. This is the pedestrian reality of drug abuse: people hurting themselves in small rooms.
All the cast are terrific, playing real three-dimensional characters, but actor-musician Riz Ahmed is standout as the titular live wire, utterly nailing the dealer's temporal mindset. He might look as if he's physically occupying a scene, but he's not really there at all - his eyes tell us he's already on the next page, a parasitic tick, eternally leaping from host to host.
Writer-director Eran Creevy drew his inspiration from a former school friend, an A-grade pupil who discovered he could make more money in the real world by dealing drugs. Not for Shifty being "stuck in a warehouse, knocking out dodgy Fruit Of The Loom". Had things worked out differently, we can easily imagine him popping up on 'The Apprentice', back-chatting Sir Alan.
Creevy eschews the woozy, art-house ambiance of Duane Hopkins' Better Things - another portrait of a drug-decimated community - for naturalistic dialogue and performances within carefully framed and composed shots; properly cinematic, grown-up direction. Though we never get the impression we're watching a wildly original cinematic voice, it's refreshing to encounter a film featuring gritty, 'urban' subject matter that hasn't been shot with a hyperventilating DV camera.
This relative stillness and subtlety gives rise to moments of exceptional power. During one scene, Shifty delivers to posh, pensionable hippie Valerie (Francesca Annis), in a grimy council flat littered with Moroccan tat and dead, stiff cats. It is safe to assume this is a long way from where she imagined she was going to end up. After everybody has had a nice cup of tea, Chris and Shifty hunch embarrassedly on the opposite sofa in silence, while Valerie gratefully sucks on the pipe, gently collapsing back into her chair, as muffled, moronic techno from the flat upstairs leaks through the ceiling into the room.
Such damn fine film-making reflects well on Shifty's sponsor, the Microwave project, which gives aspiring UK indie filmmakers a chance, a mentor, and some money to help realise their dreams. The catch: they have to turn their movie around in just 18 days on a budget of £100,000. While everyone, from caterers to star actors are paid the same, inducing a more democratic vibe on set. Heathrow horror Mum & Dad, released on Boxing Day 2008, was the first film to be made under the scheme. Shifty is the second. There are eight more to come.