Human Traffic

(Justin Kerrigan, UK, 1999)


Despite the steep censorship rating and the references made by its advertising, Human Traffic has more in common with sweet, Australian, youth-oriented films like Love and Other Catastrophes (1996) than with the sensationalist Gen X movies Trainspotting (1995) and Go (1999).

Yes, these boys and girls of Cardiff – stuck in boring jobs and less-than-glamorous suburban digs – do manage to take a lot of drugs over a jam-packed weekend of partying. But there is no overdosing, no death, no road accidents, no threat or menace of any kind in Human Traffic. Every time we think we think we see tragedy or violence coming, the film defuses the possibilities and chides our gruesome expectations.

Quite simply, this is a story of connection and disconnection between people. Although its frantic opening montage scarily promises a ‘state of the nation’ political sermon, the film is interested in only one, seemingly timeless aspect of the British character: the reserved, withdrawn, undemonstrative side.

The constant refrain of the film concerns ‘letting go’ – opening up to your best friends, talking to strangers, being unafraid to live, have fun, love freely. This ‘chemical generation’ punches through the wall of British reserve via the drug Ecstasy – only to discover even greater paranoia and scary solitude in the post-euphoric, after-party slide.

Romance and sex are, of course, big issues here – particularly for Jip (John Simm) and Lulu (Lorraine Pilkington), best friends who are slowly but surely awakening to other relationship possibilities. They both have massive hang-ups: Lulu has been betrayed too many times by previous guys, and Jip is terribly anxious about becoming ‘Mr Floppy’ in bed.

But Human Traffic is about more than ‘pairing off’. An original and touching element of the film – especially surprising for the youth genre – involves parents. DJ Koop (Shaun Parkes) visits his father in a home for the mentally disabled. Jip’s Mum – whom he loves dearly – happens to be a prostitute. Family figures around Lulu and Moff (Danny Dyer) are rather more enlightened about and amused by the wicked ways of youth than we first assume.

Writer-director Justin Kerrigan (who subsequently released a ‘director’s cut’ of the film on DVD) enlivens his first feature with numerous into-camera soliloquies, a great music selection, and well-cast, hyper-energetic actors. The film maintains its infectious level of humour with fantasy inserts and a droll mockery of every pretentious, mass media proclamation about ‘today’s wasted youth’. Human Traffic offers a gentler, wiser vision of a generation’s fumbling pursuit of fun and feeling.

© Adrian Martin January 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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