Jimmy (Phil Daniels) is in a quandary, even if he isn't entirely aware of it: he wants to belong and he wants to stand out from the crowd. He's a proud Mod in 1964, and tonight he gets a bag of pills from his supplier and friend Ferdy (Trevor Laird), all ready for a night of partying. He visits a local nightclub, but the girl he wants to get close to, Steph (Leslie Ash) is too enamoured of another boy to be interested in him, or so he believes. This is the era of the battles between the Mods and the Rockers and Jimmy is excited about going down to Brighton to be part of next weekend's combat. But what he doesn't know is that it will be the catalyst for trying times...
After The Who created a film version of their concept album Tommy, their next cinematic adaptation was Quadrophenia, a far more realistic and less stylised film, no less over the top but with a ring of truth to it. And for many, it was the better film, not only capturing a time and place but a universal feeling of alienation which many go through in their teenage years. As Jimmy, Daniels found his perfect role, a raw, nervy performance that makes you believe every word that escapes from his snarling or wailing mouth, the ideal summation of teenage angst.
Jimmy isn't at school anymore, and has a job as a general dogsbody at an advertising agency. We see in an early scene two execs discussing selling cigarettes to the kids and being glad they've given up because of the health damage, but it's OK to sell them to the younger genrration as they're less bothered. This conversation goes on while Jimmy thows up in a nearby toilet cubicle, neatly encapsulating not only the execs' callous, even hypocritical attitude, but also why Jimmy will never fit into their world and never rise through the ranks, making his final rejection of them all the more relishable.
Yet that's not all Jimmy rejects. He's the most sensitive character in the story, not that he could ever admit it, inarticulately seeing through the shallowness of the divides between the groups he belongs to, be they generational or gang-derived. The first half of the movie is all prelude to the Brighton riots, but despite that, not a moment is wasted as director Franc Roddam, scripting with Martin Stellman and Dave Humphries, brews up a heady concoction of youthful exhiliration and what to Jimmy is world-shattering disaster, all played out by some of the brightest young acting talents of the era, most of whom who may not have gone onto superstardom, but will always be fondly recalled because of this film.
Among those who did go on to great things, as opposed to a regular paycheque in series television, is Ray Winstone, essaying the role of Jimmy's old schoolfriend Kevin. But Kevin, having just been released from the army, is a rocker - much to Jimmy's discomfort as he really likes him but now is embarrassed to be seen with him. The pointlessness of tribal divisions gets to Jimmy when he sees Kevin beaten up by Mods, and this incident echoes through the rest of the plot. The actual riots are staged with tremendous energy (watch that rightfully famous shot where the Mods pour across the street and into one of greasy spoon cafes that populate the landscape), and even sees Jimmy getting the girl and making a connection with the coolest Mod around, Ace Face (Sting). But Jimmy, given to grand gestures, is to suffer crushing disillusionment when all he holds dear is exposed as a sham: the unforgettably bleak ending on the White Cliffs of Dover makes you ponder on what poor old Jimmy could possibly do next to regain his self worth.