For the last decade or so, John Cleese has given the distinct impression that he’s not really that interested in doing anything more than get his cheque and pay off his ex-wives, rather than really putting any effort in. It’s nice then that with Spud he gives us a reminder that he’s a genuinely talented chap, and not just with comedy.
Based on a book by John van de Ruit, Spud follows young John Milton (Troye Sivan), who’s about to start at the rather posh South African boarding school, Michaelhouse, just as Nelson Mandela is being freed from prison (although the political changes in South Africa play a perhaps surprisingly small role in the movie). It doesn’t take long for him to feel like an outsider, not least because he’s smaller than most of the other boys and gets the nickname Spud when they see the size of his genitals (needless to say, it’s not a compliment).
The film then charts the rest of his first year at the school, including finding a bit of a mentor in ‘The Guv’ (Cleese), a slightly unconventional teacher with a bit of a drinking problem. Spud’s also having his first confusion over girls and makes friends with a sickly kid known as ‘Gecko’ (Jamie Royal). His life could change when he gets the lead role in a new musical version of Oliver Twist, but it’s not certain if that change will be for the better or worse, especially when the director hands his a blond, curly wig to wear.
In some ways it’s surprising this film didn’t get a cinema release, but I suspect the problem is that in being relatively frank about teen life – talking about wanking, orgasms, pubic hair etc. (or as the BBFC puts it, ‘Contains frequent moderate sex references’) – it’s ended up with a 15 certificate. It’s a movie that’s designed for a young, growing audience, many of whom are shut out by the 15 rating, and so it’s coming straight to DVD and Blu-ray.
It’s a very busy film and there are times when it has a bit too much too much going on, something that becomes apparent at the end when Spud has to rush around like an absolute maniac tying up all the loose ends. The ending is a little emotionally manipulative, but it nevertheless works and leaves things on an uplifting note.
However despite being a bit frenetic (including some unexpected but surprisingly palatable musical sequences), it holds itself together and is ultimately a rather sweet trip into teen life. Many will be able to relate to the title character’s outsider status and his desire for puberty to happen a bit quicker. And while the movie does have a 15 certificate, there is nothing in Spud that kids won’t have heard (and 10 times worse) in the school playground, so if you are a parent, don’t let the rating put you off letting you young teens see it. Indeed it’s probably more responsible to let them watch something like this, which deals responsibly with the beginnings of a boy’s interest in sex and the changes in his body, rather than than leaving it to a youngster’s friends to ‘enlighten’ them. That said, it’s certainly not for really young kids, as the movie does deal with bodily changes as well as a teen’s first experience of death. But if they’re 11 years and up, I’d say this is perfect for them (sadly I don’t have the same powers as the BBFC, so my certificate can’t go on the DVD box).
There’s also a decent selection of special features, including a very watchable making of featurette, some cast and crew interviews, deleted scenes and an informative audio commentary.
Overall Verdict: A sweet, charming movie that may be a little too busy but deals with the difficulties of growing up well, even if its admission that teen boys think about sex and their bodies does mean it gets a 15 certificate.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac