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Shoplifters of the World 2021 Movie Review Poster Trailer Online
Writers:Lorianne Hall (story), Stephen Kijak
Stars:Helena Howard, Elena Kampouris, James Bloor
Stephen Kijak’s Shoplifters of the World is based around a mostly apocryphal event that took place in the fall of 1988: On the day that iconic British indie band the Smiths break up, 18-year-old superfan James Kiss enters the studio of commercial radio station KRXY in Denver with a gun, and forces its DJ to play nothing but songs by the band. In reality, Kiss ended up losing his nerve in the parking lot and turning himself into police, whereas the character modeled after him in Kijak’s film carries his unorthodox plan to fruition.
As a loving tribute to the Smiths, Shoplifters of the World couldn’t be much less suited to its era. It arrives less than two years after the influential group saw its legacy tarnished, even for many devotees, by frontman Morrissey’s controversial comments on race and immigration in the U.K. But whatever your feelings about distancing creative works from their problematic creators, what’s perhaps more troubling than the film’s ill-timed arrival is that it also seems to have a very limited understanding of what the appeal of the band was in the first place.
Kiss’s stand-in is Dean (Ellar Coltrane), a mild-mannered record store clerk. Kijak intercuts between Dean’s small-scale hostage situation and the exploits of Cleo (Helena Howard), a regular patron of his store, who has a habit of shoplifting records and tapes when she thinks his back is turned. She and her high school friends cope with the Smiths’s breakup in a much more socially acceptable way than Dean: by crashing parties around town and blasting the band’s music from the stereo systems they hijack from all sorts of squares and jocks.
Besides its needle drops of the Smiths’s big hits and deeper cuts, the film shows its familiarity with the band’s catalog by interweaving song titles and memorable lyrics into its dialogue. This slightly cringeworthy device could be intended to emulate the way that obsessive fans communicate by using their shared references as a kind of code, and to mirror the earnestness of verbose teens. But the rest of the script is neither witty nor naturalistic enough to really pull this off, and the allusions feel more like a lazy attempt at cultivating cultural cachet.
Shoplifters of the World also hardly gives expression to whatever passion drives its characters to the Smiths in the first place. There are a few mentions of Cleo’s difficult home life, and hints that one of her friends might be struggling with his sexuality, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason for them to be invested in this music instead of literally anything else. As archival footage of interviews with Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr outlines their romanticism and moral objection to the conventions of a typical rock band, we only get the faintest impression that the characters feel like outsiders and misfits in their small town. Though one brief scene toward the end of the film shows an attempted hate crime by some local toughs with baseball bats, this ends up being foiled so easily that it feels more like a kind of wish-fulfillment.
In the absence of fully formed characters, the film leans more toward an idealized, nostalgic fantasy, and the cast does often succeed in injecting the story with a sense of life. Coltrane impressively tempers Dean’s sincerity with a smirking self-consciousness, while Howard has a spontaneous, infectious energy. At their best, these performances suggest the youthful charm of something like Dazed and Confused, though Shoplifters of the World is a bit too polished and lacking in period detail to achieve the effortless joy of Richard Linklater’s classic.
All of the film’s flaws would’ve been much more forgivable had it shown more of the empathy, curiosity, or sense of humor that also happened to be defining characteristics of the Smiths’s music. As it is, Shoplifters of the World ends up giving the band’s detractors yet more fuel for their fire. Given its lack of personality and peculiar detachment from reality, the film inadvertently hints at the insular self-absorption that’s always been associated with the Smiths, and which has lately taken on much uglier forms.