What a sad, beautiful, clever, breaking series Somewhere Boy (Channel 4) is. It’s the kind of drama that rewards knowing as little as possible about it as it unfolds the story slowly and with great care. But the bare bones are that Danny (an excellent Lewis Gribben) has spent most of his life in a run-down house in the middle of the country with his father, Steve. Steve tries to keep his son safe from the “monsters” outside, but when Danny turns 18, he is wrenched from his home and sent, or rather taken, back into the real world.
Somewhere Boy is one of those rare dramas that manages to hold several themes in its hands and examine each one with equal care. It’s about starting over and fitting in; trauma and abuse; family and love; and monsters, both figurative and literal. Danny ends up living with Steve’s sister Sue and her family, and at first we see him adjust to life as an 18-year-old freshman. He asks sharp questions. He doesn’t know that he has to knock before he goes into people’s bedrooms. And the crucial thing is that he still does not understand why he was kept away from the world for so long.
This gives it the slow-burn satisfaction of a really good thriller, even though it’s much more than that. Each episode Danny learns more about his past. We see this in flashbacks to his isolated upbringing, in the stories Steve tells Danny and himself to keep the illusion going. And we see it in Danny’s nightmares, depicted with picturesque horror as a monster-made-real haunts a darker version of Danny’s already dark world.
If that sounds sad, it’s not. It’s about sadness and bad choices, but it’s also often dry fun – don’t laugh out loud, roll around on the floor funny, but it has a raised eyebrow at the absurdity of it all. Danny is guided through his new life by his reluctant cousin, Aaron (Ladhood’s Samuel Bottomley). In Danny’s previous world, he found solace in classic Hollywood, watching movies with happy endings, listening to old jazz like Mildred Bailey and country singers like Marty Robbins. His new world is brash, bright, raw. He discovers sex and porn through Aaron, which leads to a conversation about what a boy with minimal cultural references might have stashed away in his proverbial wanbank.
This is not just Danny’s story, and writer/creator Pete Jackson provided each character their own levels of depth and richness. Bottomley is particularly strong as Aaron, shy and awkward himself, seemingly friendless but desperate to fit in. He is a pitch-perfect depiction of teenage malaise. Trying on a suit in a store is excruciating for him. Watching football with your friends is painful; he keeps trying to get it right, and no matter what he does, he’s wrong. It’s a good time for stories about male friendships, from Ladhood to the Big Boys, and Aaron and Danny’s tentative partnership can easily be added to that list. Lisa McGrillis is also brilliant as Sue, whose life is changed by her brother’s decisions and the arrival of this strange young man into her family. The social worker who comes to Danny 10 minutes a week points out that he is lucky to have her support.
Somewhere Boy comes from Clerkenwell Films, who also made the similarly idiosyncratic The End of the F***ing World. Like its predecessor, this has a big, fat soundtrack where music plays a vital role, pouring in to block out the hard stuff, bubbling up to watch a particularly dramatic scene in style. It exists within the currently popular vaguely timeless era. The cars are from the 80s and 90s, but there are smartphones and big TVs. The ambient background soundtrack is often discordant, and it’s all washed in a kind of retro gray-green-blue color. It has a strong sense of its own visual identity and adds a sense that what we see is both mundane and eerie.
All eight episodes are stripped over the week in pairs, although it’s all available to watch at once: given the concise, neat nature of the half-hour episodes, this would be very easy to do. After the initial shock of Danny’s re-entry, where he has to learn what to do and how to be, the series turns its teeth into its thriller side and asks questions of guilt and revenge. It also delves into rural gothic, family drama, coming-of-age saga and even ghost story. Ultimately, though, this is in a world of its own, and Somewhere Boy is something special.