Roughhouse

Jonathan Hodson

The Duality of Male Friendship in Rougghouse

The animation film Roughhouse, BAFTA winner for Best Short Animation in 2019 and was screened at Leiden Shorts that same year, is many things all at once: a semi-autobiographical story of regret and respect, delving into the dangers of unrestrained male combativeness, and an unconventional stylistic piece that reminds us of animation’s flexibility as a medium. Above all, the film is a cautionary tale about the psychological damage we can do to others, and an invitation to carefully consider the way we treat our friends.

Centered on British students with booming personalities that bring to mind the protagonists in classic British kitchen sink drama’s and their contemporary successors, the film offers an earnest look at a group of friends that move to a shared apartment during their studies at Liverpool Polytechnic in the 1980s. Emerging from life in Birmingham, working-class “Brummie” accents included, the young men plunge into a life unbounded by parental supervision. What follows from their lack of inhibitions is recognizable to anyone who’s ever entered a dormitory, but all too quickly slides into something much darker when Shirley, one of the group’s members, is unable to pay his part of the rent. What follows is the gradual process of dehumanization that leads to unintended trauma.

Stereotypically, classically male friendships are characterized by a willingness to insult, “rough up,” and even terrorize one another. Ideally, this manifests as a pleasant veneer of disparagement that hides an implicit yet mutually agreed on contract to channel respect and understanding through the motions of animosity. Nonetheless, it’s an ambiguous and dangerous business to mask caring with antagonism. Roughhouse portrays a situation in which such behavior slides unintendedly towards destructive brutishness. The delicate balance of moderated hostility is disturbed, and a cavalcade of supposedly good-spirited fun starts to border on torture. This launches one man into a downwards spiral of alienation, a paradoxical punishment in which his main support system consists of his greatest enemies.

The voice-over that guides us through the film is reflective of an autobiographical act of remembrance by the filmmaker, with an unassuming tone that Hodgson himself has characterized like an down-to-earth story told in a pub. In parallel to that intention, Roughhouse’s hand-drawn animation is decidedly haphazard, foregoing the cleanliness of popular animation films in favor of an unpolished, style that seems to take a rebellious stance against conventional aesthetic standards. As a form in support of a story, the crude drawings are thus not just reflective of the protagonists’ temperaments, but also prevent the film from becoming an overly stylized and neatly self-contained representation of trauma.

“Shirley was invincible. Or so we thought.” With this simple statement, Roughhouse laments the fact that confidence in each other’s strength can give way to blindness towards each other’s vulnerability. While the film offers an impactful warning about the potential dangers inherent in masculine animosity, it ultimately focuses on the characters’ potential for respectful tenderness and understanding. Considering the skepticism and pessimism surrounding masculinity nowadays, the cautionary tale of Roughhouse is impactful precisely because of its positive outlook.

Mike Schrauwen,  is currently an MA student of Media Studies at Leiden University and is an intern and junior programmer at Leiden Shorts Film Festival 2021.