Shoplifters of the World is a coming-of-age dramedy set in 1987 that revolves around the sudden break-up of iconic 1980s British post-punk gloom-pop band, The Smiths.
A group of teens goes out on the town for what may be their last epic time together, lamenting the end of an era and the inevitable, unsettling changes their futures carry. Meanwhile, a fervent Smiths fan holds a metal radio DJ hostage at gunpoint, forcing the man to play nothing but their favorite band, providing his friends their soundtrack for the fateful night.
Shoplifters of the World Unite is the name of a Smiths song (why the last word was cut off for the movie’s title is anyone’s guess), and writer-director Stephen Kijak (interview HERE) does an artful job of weaving the music into the narrative. No surprise there, since he’s anything but a “poseur” (to use 80s parlance) – he genuinely loves music and has helmed several band documentaries, including The Stones in Exile.
The late 80s were an interesting time in rock music history – and, perhaps, it was the last interesting time (with a few exceptions to come, such as Nirvana, The White Stripes, and some others). That’s why The Smiths’ break-up plot device is such a clever juxtaposition to teens having to say goodbye to their childhood.
While the concept is clever, the execution doesn’t always work. The bulk of the narrative follows the least exciting plot, unfortunately. It’s the four friends out for their last hurrah in Denver, CO: shoplifting Cleo (Helena Howard) is a rebel who lacks direction in life; Sheila (Elena Kampouris) pines for someone who will never feel the same way about her; Patrick (James Bloor) wrestles with his sexual identity; Billy (Nick Strause) is worried about being shipped off to military boot camp. The characters are standard-issue, and they mostly talk in Smiths lyrics. When they’re not saying stuff like “I would leap in front of a flying bullet for you,” they pontificate with all the wisdom and perspective of jaded 50-year-olds. Arch dialogue for teen characters is okay – think: Diablo Cody’s writing for Juno – but this portion of Shoplifters of the World isn’t overtly humorous enough to carry it off.
The best story, which is both funny and heartfelt, is the tete-a-tete between Cleo’s lovesick, Smiths-loving friend Dean (Ellar Coltrane), and the DJ Full Metal Mickey (Joe Manganiello). While being held at gunpoint by Dean, mullet-wearing Mickey is at once incredulous, charming, reflective, and nurturing. He is actually the wildcard of the two. Sadly, their interaction and poignant conversations about music and life are not the film’s focal point.
So, that’s it. Oh, wait. No, it’s not. There is yet another element to Shoplifters of the World: Interspersed throughout are vintage interview clips featuring The Smiths (mainly Morrissey) as well as concert footage. It’s a bold choice, and while I enjoyed them in the moment, I have to admit they do mess up the movie’s pacing. They probably should have been cut—or, at least, served as bookends. (Also, some viewers may find showing Morrissey at all to be problematic given his present-day racism.)
While all of the actors are able, Manganiello and Coltrane are the standouts. I got invested in their characters, and I can’t imagine other actors in their roles. Howard possesses an innate charisma that draws you to her, even if interest in her character may fizzle toward the end (but she rallies for a fun, apropos conclusion). I also liked Uncle Dick (Thomas Lennon), who is only in one scene, as the record store owner where Dean works.
Shoplifters of the World is sumptuously shot, with cinematographer Andrew Wheeler and Steadicam operator Tanner Carlson working in harmony to present a rich, grainy, saturated, authentic but arty feel to the affair. The costumes and makeup feel genuine, even without the actual cartoony, over-the-top excess of the era.
The cherry on top is the spot-on score (Rael Jones) and truly stunning soundtrack, which features 20 vintage songs by The Smiths (as well as Full-Metal Mickey’s fave, Ozzy Osbourne).
Despite its flaws, Shoplifters of the World is heartfelt. I’ve seen it twice, and both times, “I laughed, I cried…” What more can a music-loving film fan ask for?
SHOPLIFTERS OF THE WORLD WILL BE IN THEATERS, ON DEMAND, AND DIGITAL ON MARCH 26, 2021.
And Don’t Miss My Interview with Writer/Director Stephen Kijak