A HOUSING PROJECT in South London. A tubby kid kicking a soccer ball against the wall. A teenage girl dressed in slutty attire, hanging around, watching the dilapidated buildings.
A deathly silence in this concrete complex of working-class families, interrupted occasionally by verbal misery: sarcastic comments, obscenities. A world of lethargy, quick-trigger anger and hopelessness.
This is the setting of "All or Nothing," Mike Leigh's bracing and ultimately humanistic symphony, in which the Bassett family, their neighbors and workmates soldier through the everyday: some with resignation, others with anger or bitterness, one or two with kindness or a sense of humor.
It's so hard, being alive. And in Leigh's exquisitely textured film, we see characters coming up tragically short in so many ways, as they try to make it through a job, a relationship or just another day. And there's the bloody morning again.
Imagine the glorious hallelujah, then, when the members of one family find -- quite by accident -- that they might just love one another.
Phil (Timothy Spall), a hangdog Bassett, is a cash-poor taxi driver who gets up late and constantly asks his wife and two teenage children for change. His spouse, Penny (Lesley Manville), is a cashier at Safeway, who sees a lot of money during the day but brings little of it home.
Phil's lost in himself, his suffering face obscured by a mop of greasy hair. But in his own irresponsible way, he's also a lowercase saint, ever mindful of a fare-challenged customer's need for dignity. Penny's withering quietly from Phil's neglect and his lack of money. But she keeps her frustration hidden, for Phil's sake.
Both are emotionally brutalized by her son Rory (James Corden), an overweight teenage couch potato who can't withstand a conversation without bitter rancor. Bringing up the quiet rear is Rachel (Alison Garland), Rory's withdrawn sister, who works in a senior home and carries her own heavy load. Not that anyone asks.
Leigh doesn't stop with the Bassetts. He introduces us to a wider circle around them, ranging from the sullen Ron (Paul Jesson), Phil's unfriendly workmate who backs into a stone pillar, then claims a female driver hit him, to the sunny Maureen (Ruth Sheen), who lives next door.
Maureen, who works with Penny and loves to sing karaoke on Saturday nights, is a hint of the sunlight that could break through this overcast human gloom at any moment. She refuses to be daunted by anything, including her surly daughter, Donna (Helen Coker).
"Where are you going?" Maureen asks Donna, as the teenager dolls up for an outing.
"Out," says Donna, curtly.
"Oh, I've been there," says Maureen.
"Have you?" says Donna, continuing the sarcasm.
"Yeah, gets a bit packed though, doesn't it?"
A Leigh movie is always good for acerbic, semi-humorous conversation like this. But there's more to it than that. Motivations, secrets and lies lurk inches beneath the pithy language.
In "All or Nothing," many of those revelations are brought to bear, particularly in the Bassett household after an alarming incident brings the family desperately together. But throughout this and other tribulations, Andrew Dickson's soothing score assures us a heart is beating somewhere in this movie, that things are somehow on the mend; that there's hope.
Leigh has created another remarkable work, up there with his best, including "High Hopes," "Life Is Sweet," "Naked," "Secrets & Lies" and "Topsy-Turvy." And once again, his actors (particularly Spall and Manville) seem to be living directly on the screen.
This seems like the right opportunity to pay tribute to one of Leigh's troupe: Katrin Cartlidge, who passed away Sept. 7 of complications from pneumonia and septicemia. The British actor was sublime in everything she did for Leigh, major or minor, including "Naked," "Topsy-Turvy" and "Career Girls." She was first-class, too, in other films. Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves" and Milcho Manchevski's "Before the Rain" come most immediately to mind. Although she's not in this particular film, the Mike Leigh universe will never be the same without her.
ALL OR NOTHING (R, 128 minutes) -- Contains sexual scenes and pervasive obscenity. At Cinema Arts Theater and Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle.