Pirates is the directorial feature debut of Reggie Yates – and on this form, we hope there’s a lot more ahead: here’s our review.

One of the most delightful changes in recent cinema has been the shift in what makes a film ‘universal’. Yet as it turns out, the last few years have shown that the best route to universality is, in fact, specificity. The likes of The Farewell, Coco and Crazy Rich Asians are deeply rooted in the cultures they depict, but it’s exactly that specific focus which makes them feel completely universal. Our traditions, customs and cultural references might be different, but we can all recognise ourselves in rounded, realistic characters.

On that note, Reggie Yates’s directorial debut Pirates is an utterly joyous experience. It’s a head-first, energetic dive into a London council estate and garage music culture on the tipping point of the turn of the millennium.

Obviously, those with an affection and familiarity for this particular world and its associated music will find more to chew on than the average viewer, but Yates so convincingly and completely immerses his audience in the period that even those too young or too old to have experienced this cultural moment will soon be fluent in Tamagotchis and So Solid Crew.

His protagonists are a trio of young men who run a pirate radio station together and decide to do something special for the historic New Year’s Eve of 1999. They abandon their simplistic original plan of “Tekken and titties” for  a quest to grab some tickets for the famed Twice As Nice club event. Cappo (Elliot Edusah) is back from university and considering his future as part of the radio station, while Two Tonne (Jordan Peters) is focused on trying to woo Sophie (Kassius Nelson) and the charming Kidda (Reda Elazouar) just wants to have a good time with his buddies.

Yates positions his three protagonists as being at the apex of multiple paradigm shifts, with their carefree youth coming to an end along with the century in which everyone they know has lived their entire existence. There’s a desperation to the way these characters are pursuing their share of NYE hedonism, as if Y2K isn’t the only imminent threat to their way of life. It’s a nuanced and compelling depiction of something we’ve all felt – the notion of youth slipping through your fingers while you frantically try to make up for lost time, before responsibilities and consequences rear their ugly head.

The three central performers are terrific, with Elazouar an obvious highlight thanks to his whirlwind, fast-talking comic charisma. The trio are introduced with a super-stylish dance sequence over the opening credits and it’s a mission statement for the swaggering joy to come, with Yates’ script ladling on the charm and the humour in the first half in order to provide a scaffold for the more obvious and conventional emotional beats of the final act.

These characters are innately likeable from the off, so we feel every setback on their enjoyably digression-filled journey to the dance floor. Supporting characters flit in and out, but leave their comic mark. Youssef Kerkour is a joy as the hilariously dodgy Uncle Ibbs, while Aaron Shosanya steals every scene in which he appears as the imposing Megaman.

If there’s a drawback, and there is, it’s that the film’s irrevocable and all-consuming love of the 1990s and its associated nostalgia has a tendency to get under the feet of the story. Occasionally, it feels as if the movie grinds to a juddering halt in order to accommodate some extended riff about playing Snake on a Nokia, putting DVDs into a PlayStation or rewinding a cassette tape with a biro. There’s no doubt that these nods and winks are fun and will be particularly exciting for those who love the time period as much as Yates, but there are stretches of time where the movie has the whiff of a rather obvious online listicle one of your long-forgotten classmates has shared on Facebook.

But when the movie gets out of its own way, it can’t help but fly. Struggling against a meagre budget and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic – the movie shut down 10 days before shooting ended – Yates has crafted a stylish love letter to a unique, specific cultural moment. Comparisons to The Inbetweeners and Superbad are easy to make, but Pirates is a fresher and more original beast than that suggests, spotlighting a subculture which seldom gets its due – though it’s interesting that this comes out within months of the similarly garage-inflected People Just Do Nothing: Big in Japan.

Pirates is a hell of a calling card for Yates, showcasing his ability to deliver something that’s short, sharp and silly but isn’t afraid to tackle big emotions with surprising nuance. It’s a slight piece of work, for sure, and never truly escapes the slightly ramshackle feel of a low-budget debut, but it overflows with charm and deserves to find an audience who will chime with its time capsule approach and relish the opportunity to once again party like it’s 1999.

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