About halfway through Get Duked!, there comes a moment when you realize this silly little comedy about a group of city-dwelling teenagers in the Scottish Highlands became a bold experiment in instinctive filmmaking. Right when it seems like things are about to fly off the rails, it’s clear that it was slowly evolving into a lawless social satire the whole time. The film hasn’t betrayed our trust by breaking its own rules, as many madcap comedies often do. It rewards our investment by proving it never needed rules in the first place.
This is British music video director Ninian Doff’s feature debut, produced from his own screenplay. Doff has a lot to say in Get Duked!, managing to fit more into 87 minutes than many filmmakers do in movies twice as long. It’s so dense that Doff needed at least four endings, Lord of the Rings style—narrative, political, emotional, and tonal—and each one of them is earned. With a film that covers so much terrain, it’s hard to imagine how he could possibly follow it up, but Get Duked! leaves little doubt that this is an artist with no shortage of fresh ideas.
The story concerns a series of disasters that befall participants in the Duke of Edinburgh Award, a fictionalized version of a real program. Three delinquents—Dean (Rian Gordon), Duncan (Lewis Gribben), and DJ Beatroot (Viraj Juneja)—are sent to the Scottish Highlands on a hiking trip as penance for blowing up a public restroom. They’re joined by Ian (Samuel Bottomley), a naive, homeschooled boy who volunteers for the program to make new friends. As they make their way to camp, they’re pursued by a possible serial killer disguised as the Duke of Edinburgh (Eddie Izzard). The local police, already ill-equipped to deal with the case of a bread thief, misconstrue events until their suspect description is little more than a string of scary adjectives, all while never actually accomplishing anything.
Get Duked! made the rounds at last year’s festival under the name Boyz in the Wood. The new, less jokey title is better suited to the final film, but the original captures its spirit and its place in the history of British satire, with the likes of the sitcom “Spaced”—created by and starring Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson, directed by Edgar Wright, and co-starring Nick Frost—about 20-something Londoners mired in American pop culture, and the juxtaposition of their mundane lives with their Hollywood obsessions. (It propelled the team to films like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, which are built on similar sensibilities.)
Setting Get Duked! in the Scottish Highlands taps into some of the same absurdity that makes “Spaced” so much fun. Nothing is supposed to happen here, yet it becomes the scene for drug-fueled underground raves with Scottish farmers, bored officers too eager to assume the role of supercops, bored hunters who pretend to be murderous aristocrats to act out a generational grudge, and commentary on how trying to help “troubled” youth has no basis in what they actually need. Along the way, the filmmaking joyously borrows from a number of genres, including action, horror, musical, even zombie. Changing the name to Get Duked! was a good decision, but Boyz in the Wood says a lot about its intentions.
Many films like this fail in treating the depth of their characters as secondary to the loudness of their antics, and it’s in getting this right that Doff truly sets himself apart as a writer-director. He knows that we’re used to thinly sketched characters being reaction machines, screaming at scary things, laughing at funny things, while the selfish one says selfish stuff, the stupid one says stupid stuff, etc. In Get Duked!, not only do all four boys see real growth throughout the film, but even the most insane action is convincing. Doff is fully invested in the characters as people, and for a minute you may find yourself genuinely anxious about their fate. They are not simply the vehicle by which an opinionated artist conveys a snarky opinion, or a skilled technician shows off. These characters are strong enough to carry a film twice as long.
Get Duked! is a wickedly clever commentary on class and the state of Britain in a deceptively funny package, anchored by stylistic boldness and propelled by memorable performances and shockingly blunt anti-aristocratic commentary for a country that still has a monarch. Some have found Doff’s lengthy flights of fancy to be frustrating. I find them invigorating, like he knew he was breaking the rules, but believed in the material too much to care.