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Review: Coming of age to the sounds of the Smiths in ‘Shoplifters of the World’

Ellar Coltrane and Helena Howard in the movie "Shoplifters of the World."
Ellar Coltrane and Helena Howard in the movie “Shoplifters of the World.”
(RLJE Films)

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For years, a myth persisted that in 1987 a young Smiths fan held up a local Denver radio station at gunpoint with a stash of Smiths tapes and demanded they play the Manchester, England, band’s music for hours. It’s even been said that this was the inspiration for the 1994 rock comedy “Airheads.” The legend has since been debunked, and the true story is that while the fan did intend to take over the station, he lost his nerve at the last minute and turned himself in. But legends never die, and now it’s the inspiration for Stephen Kijak’s Smiths tribute film, “Shoplifters of the World,” which opens with the promise that it’s “based on true intentions.”

Ellar Coltrane (“Boyhood”) plays the station hijacker, Dean, a young record store clerk inspired to do something that will go down in musical history on the day in 1987 that the Smiths break up. He is, of course, trying to impress a girl, the magnetic and elusive Cleo (Helena Howard), a die-hard Smiths fan whom he allows to pocket as many cassette tapes as she wants from his store.

“Shoplifters of the World,” in fact, belongs to Cleo, not just because Howard is such a dizzyingly charismatic actress but because her story, which unfolds parallel to Dean’s, is a heartfelt coming-of-age drama that perfectly embodies the youthful angst, ennui and romantic longing expressed so well in the music of the Smiths. She too longs to escape her own humdrum town.

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While Dean spends the night bonding over music (at gunpoint) in the KISS 101 station with DJ Full Metal Mickey (Joe Manganiello, who also produced the film), Cleo spends one last night with her friends before Billy (Nick Strause) ships off to basic training. They pick up Sheila (Elena Kampouris) and Patrick (James Bloor) and the foursome head out for one last epic all-nighter, a night that will test their bonds, their dreams, their sexuality and themselves, all soundtracked to 20 of the greatest Smiths songs.

Much like frontman Morrissey’s lyrics, “Shoplifters of the World” is incredibly earnest and deeply felt, though there are elements that feel artificial. The friends often speak in song lyrics, which is at first a sort of charming affectation but then peppers so much of their dialogue that it feels inauthentic and forced, to the point where one starts to question all of their lines.

But you can’t help but be drawn into their personal struggles. Cleo and Sheila, especially, are just so cool, despite their flaws and foibles, while Billy and Patrick thrash against the masculine social norms and expectations they just can’t seem to shake.

It’s beautifully shot; cinematographer Andrew Wheeler rides the line between realism and visual excess to draw us into this night of wanton abandon. Steadicam operator Tanner Carlson’s kinetic camerawork, especially on the dance floor of a coffee shop, house party or gay bar, is expertly executed and utterly intoxicating.

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Structured in “sides” (like a record or a tape) titled after different Smiths songs, with interviews and archival footage of the band interspersed throughout, the film creates a true tribute to the Smiths — specifically their heydey, it should be emphasized. Full Metal Mickey at one point mentions the ways in which one’s heroes can disappoint, an apt approach to Morrissey these days. But if you love the Smiths, and that magical teenage time when music, and your connection to it, is the most important thing in the world, you’re likely to swoon for “Shoplifters of the World.”

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘Shoplifters of the World’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes

Playing: Starts March 26, Music Hall, Beverly Hills, and in limited release where theaters are open; also on digital and VOD


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