Insects crawl through Richard Billingham’s “Ray & Liz.” The British director films squalor lovingly. He returns to the concept of kitchen-sink realism with an eye toward restaging his own UK childhood in Birmingham. Billingham had already explored this ground in his acclaimed photo series “Ray’s A Laugh.” Almost 25 years removed from it and much further from his actual youth, he recreated life with a pair of irresponsible parents. Terence Davies’ “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes” are obvious inspirations, but unlike Davies, he finds no transcendence in art.
“Ray & Liz” balances three time frames. An elderly alcoholic, Ray (played at this age by Patrick Romer), lives in a tiny, squalid apartment, relying on occasional visits from friends and his ex-wife. In a flashback, the 10-year-old Richard (Jacob Tuton) lives with Ray (played in middle age by Justin Salinger) and the obese, heavily tattooed Liz (Ella Smith.) They go out shopping, leaving Richard’s two-year-old brother Jason (Callum Slater) in the care of Lol (Tony Way.) Unfortunately, Will (Sam Gittins) drops by with large quantities of alcohol and taunts Lol into getting extremely drunk. He passes out and Ray and Liz return to find Jason walking around with a knife in his hand. In the second flashback, a slightly older Jason (Joshua Millard) wanders around on his own, looking for affection.
Billingham shot “Ray & Liz” in a boxy 1.33 frame. Daniel Landin’s 16mm cinematography creates a sense of claustrophobia. Everyone onscreen seems trapped by their lives. The elderly Ray suffers from agoraphobia as much as alcoholism, content to lie around getting drunk and listening to the radio. When Jason goes outside for the first time, around the 65-minute mark, his ability to escape the confines of family life is startling. Billingham revisits the zoo, the site of his second series of photos, with Jason’s journey.
Billingham isn’t interested in pretty images, but he does create striking ones, citing van Gogh and Degas as influences. He uses the confined space of apartments to create frames within frames. “Ray & Liz” frequently cuts from disorientingly extreme close-ups to establishing shots, in a reverse of classical film grammar.
When Billingham began taking photos of his family, his father had been unemployed for 14 years. He noted, “Ray is a chronic alcoholic and has drunk for as long as I can remember. He has not worked since he was made redundant from his job as a machinist around 1980. Liz very rarely drinks but she does smoke a lot of cigarettes. My younger brother still does not seem to know what he wants: he gets a job for or week or two and then leaves it.” Billingham got out of the dead-end existence that his photos and film depict. The dream of freedom depicted in the final third of “Ray & Liz” gives one some idea how, but here he gives that freedom to his brother.
“Ray & Liz” seems acutely aware of its place in British film history and what it doesn’t want to do. A strain of neo-neo-realism, exemplified by Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake,” is mostly interested in working-class people as victims of capitalism and the world as their obstacle course. Billingham never suggests any root causes for his characters’ problems, although it’s not hard to make a link between his father’s unemployment and drinking problem. He’s more interested in communicating the sensations of their lives. The scene where Lol gets drunk is made more grating by the fact that Jason is constantly hammering on a toy off-screen. Throughout it, the film uses sound design to enhance the ugliness of its images, which include details like Lol puking while asleep and a dog then licking his vomit up. It dances the tango with miserabilism, but its world feels genuinely inhabited, rather than gazed at by a disinterested voyeur.
Billingham has been thinking about this material his entire working life. In 1998, he made a documentary, “Fishtank,” about his father. It took five years to produce “Ray & Liz,” and its first third initially saw the light of day as a short in 2016. If his photos have moved on from his parents — he’s now depicting his own partner and their children — the desire to reenact childhood pain obviously never left him. But “Ray & Liz” feels oddly mediated given its personal roots. The film winds up in a place it may not have intended: it’s auto-fiction that relies on art, made both by Billingham and others, to find the keys to his family’s life story.
RAY & LIZ | Directed by Richard Billingham | KimStim | Opens Jul. 10 | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St.; filmforum.org