After her checkout shift at the local supermarket, community college student Cleo (Helena Howard) returns home to hear the devastating news on television that the British new wave band The Smiths have broken up. Her bedroom walls are plastered with Morrissey’s image, her Volkswagen Beetle is covered with The Smiths stickers; even the license plate reads MEATISMRDR, in writer-director Stephen Kijak’s richly detailed and lovingly crafted new feature Shoplifters of the World, set in a Smithstopian filtered Denver, Colorado in 1987. To help ease her pain, Cleo heads to the record store and helps herself to The Smiths back catalogue and more on cassette, while the employee behind the desk, Dean (Ellar Coltrane)—equally distraught with the day’s music news from Manchester and clearly smitten with the beautiful young shoplifter—turns a blind eye.
Next we meet handsome Billy (Nick Krause) while he’s in the midst of masturbating with two blown up balloons, which doesn’t look like a good idea, particularly when they pop…It’s his last day of freedom before enlisting in the military to keep his father happy. Meanwhile eyeliner-wearing celibate Morrissey-devotee Patrick (Jam Bloor) is getting ready to go out for the evening with his girlfriend since middle school, Sheila (Elena Kampouris); a character name that’s likely a nod to the BAFTA-winning playwright and screenwriter Shelagh Delaney, whose A Taste of Honey had a major influence on The Smiths‘ first album. Sheila is sporting what she calls “a modified Madonna tomboy look”, channeling a distinctly Desperately Seeking Susan vibe. In fact there’s a great visual homage to Susan Seidelman’s 80s classic set in a women’s restroom later in the film, as Kijak immerses us in some of the iconic sights and sounds of the decade, with a gay bar bouncer, Amazing Grace (Kevin Aviance), cutting a striking shoulder-padded Grace Jones look and a house party guest who is clearly enthralled by The Cure’s Robert Smith (Lucas Phayre-Gonzalez) dressed as his idol.
As these four old high school friends—Cleo, Billy, Sheila, and Patrick—come together they spend the evening taking in the news, and trying to figure out who they are now that the band that has helped define them is no more. Record store clerk Dean is taking it particularly hard and drives himself to a radio station, which he says ordinarily “vomits Cheez Whiz all over Denver”, with a case full of vinyl and a pistol. Finding his way into the studio, he demands that the DJ, Full Metal Mickey (Joe Manganiello), play “the only band that matters”, The Smiths, for the rest of his show; music that Dean says has been his “salvation”. As the night progresses in this intense scenario, the two men from such distinct musical tribes, begin to open up to one another about their lives, and there’s great chemistry between the soulful, sensitive Coltrane and Manganiello, who brings nuance and humour to his role. During the evening he warns Dean, “One day your heroes are going to grow old…they’re gonna say stupid things which will disappoint you”, a prophetic nod perhaps to the controversy that Morrissey has sparked in recent years.
Although when we are first introduced to Patrick he protests that he isn’t gay, those closest to him have worked out he’s queer long before he’s ready to fully accept it himself, but over the course of the night his closet door inches open that bit wider as he encounters the confident bisexual Brian (Tonatiuh) at a house party who plays with Patrick’s attraction to him, while Billy, who’s questioning his own gender identity, tries to encourage Billy to discover who he truly is. We’re given a sense of the bigger societal and cultural landscape as we hear AIDS and ACT UP briefly mentioned earlier in the film, then later there’s some aggressive toxic masculinity and homophobia outside the Denver gay club that the characters find themselves at, and queer defiance blasting on the speakers inside, in the form of Bronski Beat’s Why?, with some fabulous folks dancing their asses off to it.
With some fine editing by Fabienne Bouville and Yaniv Dabach, Kijak successfully keeps the two plot strands in parallel, allowing them to have their own distinct vibes and rhythms, while sustaining our engagement in both.
One of the pleasures of the film is anticipating which Smiths song is going to come next. Like a good jukebox musical, sometimes you can sense what’s coming and at other times it is a delightful surprise. The music itself is skillfully layered throughout. We hear The Smiths playing on a car radio; in a diner; in the radio station studio; on house party speakers; in the record store; loud, front and centre on the film’s soundtrack; while one of their greatest hits is used under the dialogue as a bed; and melodies from the songs are referenced on composer Rael Jones’ film score. Not only is there an incredible array of Smiths tracks, but snatches of lyrics prominently run through Kijak’s screenplay spoken knowingly by the characters, even at one point directly aligning with the words sung on the soundtrack. There are also visual references to The Smiths’ videos, and colour filters that acknowledge the record cover artwork. When we see the records themselves they are lingered on reverently, as if seen through the eyes of the fans, as the needle drops on the vinyl.
Adding a further Smithsian layer is the intercutting of black and white archive footage of the band performing live and Morrissey talking about the music, giving us a flavour of the provocateur he’s always been when at one point we hear him say that bands which don’t use their songs to say something meaningful are “sinful”.
As we spend the night with these charming young miserablists, a misfit group that somehow bonds together, all beautifully played by the appealing cast, Shoplifters of the World, like the best of The Smiths, is more about the mood and tone it creates than the plot. It captures that period in our lives when music guides us, defines us, and as Dean says, often feels like our salvation.
By James Kleinmann