"Us boys, we'll always be the same." When naïve Billy (Kyle Treslove) says this to his friend Justin (Lee Turnbull) in Sam Holland's feature debut Zebra Crossing, he is articulating the challenges that face the polyhyphenate filmmaker as much as his protagonist. Justin may yearn to escape the grim destiny imposed by his upbringing on a South London tower estate, surrounded by crime, violence and hate - but the more Justin struggles against the pressures of his environs, the more Holland too must fight off the temptations of cliche.
Even as Justin's pugnacious best friend Tommy (Greg Wakeham) embraces his legacy, stirring up all manner of trouble in his determination to become 'top boy' in a violent gangland playground, Justin begins steadily distancing himself from his old crew, and in his isolation and despair seeks refuge with an unlikely figure (Michael Maris).
It is hardly a novelty for a British film to trace turbulent rites of passage in a gritty urban milieu, but here Holland allows visual stylisation and irrational - even supernatural - crosscurrents to counter and subvert the well-worn tropes of social realism. Not that Holland's tics and flourishes are entirely without precedent. By shooting hatred and racial tension amidst concrete-clad locations in a dreamily hyper-real monochrome, Holland evokes Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine (1995); by showing clouds rushing overhead in mannered timelapse and allowing the odd burst of colour to infect his black-and-white images, he acknowledges a debt to Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish (1983); and by choosing to cut a scene at the precise moment a pint glass is carelessly thrown into the air, momentarily divorcing the event from its consequence, Holland references a similar sequence from Danny Boyle's Trainspotting (1996).
Boys will always be boys - but in borrowing eclectically from such reputable sources, Holland dares to play with the biggest boys on the block, bringing both assurance and unexpected vibrancy to an otherwise familiar story of urban entrapment.