All or Nothing

“All or Nothing” is about three lower-middle-class families who live in a slummy row of flats on the outskirts of London. Among their professions are taxi driver, supermarket checkout clerk and lazy teenage boy. There is a lot of yelling within the families but rarely between them.

In this compelling film by writer/director Mike Leigh (“Topsy-Turvy”), characters wander slowly into epiphanies about themselves, about their relationships, about the world. The people are sad and economically depressed, but they (and the film) ultimately rise above it –or at least see how rising above it is possible.

Phil (Timothy Spall) is a lackluster cabbie, sleeping late in the morning and missing the airport runs. He is flat broke, borrowing money from his kids and searching for change under couch cushions. He likes mumbling philosophically about fate and “kismet,” no doubt because leaving everything up to the cosmos exonerates him from having to do anything himself.

His wife, Penny (Lesley Manville), works at a grocery store and regards her husband with casual disdain: She hardly even seems to know him, and when their obese, insulting son Rory (James Corden) yells obscenities at her, she is only mildly hurt or surprised that Phil doesn’t defend her.

Across the way, Penny’s friend and co-worker Maureen (Ruth Sheen) earns a little extra on the side by doing people’s ironing. Maureen is cheerful, having learned to use humor to keep her spirits up. A single mom, she has a teenage daughter, Donna (Helen Coker), whose macho-weaselly boyfriend (Daniel Mays) has gotten her pregnant. Maureen’s defense of her daughter and reaction toward the lousy boyfriend is priceless.

The third family includes alcoholic Carol (Marion Bailey) and useless Ron (Paul Jesson), plus a daughter (Sally Hawkins) who is jealous of Donna’s apparent romantic success.

For a good little while, Leigh expertly navigates the three families’ individual dilemmas, switching back and forth enough to maintain interest in all of them, letting them feed off each other thematically. Then, curiously, he spends the last 30 minutes of the film focusing on just one, resolving their issues but leaving many other threads dangling. Why introduce the other groups at all if the focus would turn out to be on just one?

But the film is too good to be discounted because of a flaw in the structure. The characters consistently behave so believably that you forget you’re watching actors. Their experiences are familiar to us, and the performances are insightful. Some of the events are unpleasant, but we are glad to accompany these people, who seem like our friends, through them.

B+ (2 hrs., 8 min.; R, pervasive harsh profanity, some nudity, some sexuality.)