Eran Creevy’s debut feature follows two former childhood friends reunited by chance, regret and the need for mutual consolation. Riz Ahmed plays the eponymous protagonist, a Muslim drug dealer who earns í‚Â£3000 a week, has as much casual sex as he can manage and lives at his older brother Rez’s, who gave him a second chance when their parents disowned him. His life is spent dodging the local addicts and the threats of a ruthless rival dealer while trying to ensure that his brother doesn’t find out about his secret business empire.
Enter Chris (Daniel Mays), Shifty’s estranged best friend who left their small town without notice four years earlier, leaving his accomplice to take the fall after a tragic incident involving his own sale of drugs. In the intervening years, Chris has cleaned up his act, with a job in recruitment and a steady mortgage, while Shifty has spiralled further into the business, selling crack to pensioners and gaining fresh young customers by force. Over 24 hours, Chris follows his old friend, rediscovering the life he left behind and finding out what’s become of the people who stayed, while attempting to counter the criticism levelled against him for his past actions.
From the outset, Creevy’s undeniably gritty drama distances itself from similarly themed tales set in small-town Britain. His protagonist is played neither for cool nor to deliver a moral lesson, but there’s a great depth to Shifty’s character, helped in part by a breathtaking performance from Ahmed, who inhabits the role with a sense of urgency and experience. At times there’s an unbearable intensity in his eyes, contrasted with the calmness of his voice, that convinces the audience, and perhaps Shifty himself, that he has what it takes to be a drug dealer. He also displays a beautifully underplayed vulnerability. For his part, Mays breathes some sensitivity into Chris, who spends the film walking the line between saviour and hypocrite, and the two share an undeniable chemistry. This is typified in a scene where they recapture memories of their youth in a children’s playground, the mood aptly complemented by Molly Nyman and Harry Escott’s delicate piano-driven score.
The film’s greatest strength lies in its structured fragility, much like the relationship between the two leads, which allows for reassuring banter to switch in seconds to uncomfortable and potentially threatening situations. This is perfectly exemplified in an early scene where Chris is invited into Shifty’s kitchen, considerately asked if he’ll eat Halal sausages, playfully mocked by Rez, then slammed with the question as to why he left. Moments such as this drive the film emotionally; in spite of their actions, the characters aren’t presented as devoid of compassion, and Creevy never condones the way they choose to lead their lives.
One of the first films to be funded by Film London’s Microwave, whereby selected filmmakers are challenged to shoot a feature film with a budget of í‚Â£100,000 with support from established industry figures (Creevy’s mentor was Asif Kapadia), Shifty is an accomplishment for both its filmmakers and the new scheme itself.