Nick James in Sight & Sound

July 2008

I saw Duane Hopkins' Better Things a month or so before Cannes and was excited by its technical and stylistic approaches to typical problems of British realism. It was strange to discover later that Hopkins' strategy for avoiding the Ken Loach keep-it-real kitchen-sink tendency was not dissimilar to Steve McQueen's. Hopkins succeeds in unravelling relationships between a vividly realised collection of repressed, locked-down and fearful characters, both young and old, living in the rural boredom of the Cotswolds. It's a work of great beauty and few words that's so sharply edited that every startling flourish of an idea hits with full impact. You get the long, contemplative shots familiar in what we might now call the international film-festival style, but usually absent from British cinema. But we also get the benefit of a synthetic approach to sound and image that feels consummate. Both Hopkins and McQueen are creating a fresh strangeness in British cinema.

Source | Sight & Sound

Gavin Smith in Film Comment

July-August 2008

If [Steve] McQueen ultimately took an extreme approach to the prison film, newcomer Duane Hopkins’ bleak teenage-wasteland slice of life Better Things over in the Crtics’ Week was no less bold in its treatment of its genre of choice. In part that’s because it ultimately transcends the dead-end miserabilism that’s de rigeur when detailing the spectral lives of the addicted, the old and the infirm. But said boldness is also due to the way the film’s elliptical and unusually spare rhythms, stark compositions, and quiet sense of time passing break so decisively with the grammatical norms of British cinema. Hopkins relocates routine heroin use from the urban milieu with which it’s most frequently associated (at least in movies) to a rural community in the Midlands. The central situation – the emotionally numbing effect of a teenage girl’s fatal overdose on her drug-using peers and intimates – is interwoven with the predicaments of a teenage shut-in with an anxiety disorder and an elderly woman struggling to break through to her depressed husband after his return from a hospital stay. The uniformly gray palette and desolate presentation offer no relief – as with Hunger, the film is relentless, but in a good way. Come to think of it, Hopkins’ film is as much a prison movie as McQueen’s – and its great achievement is to envisage the possibility of escape for its inarticulate and emotionally isolated characters.