By Stephanie Zacharek
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In a land most Americans associate with single-malt whiskey, four-putt greens and the lyrics of Robert Burns, a major literary and cinematic revival continues apace--and the Scottish tourist office is probably still hiding its head. No sooner has the dark and brilliant Trainspotting painted Edinburgh as a nest of roving junkie nihilists than a new film called Small Faces comes along to reveal the lethal Glasgow street gangs of the 1960s.
So much the better. If there's a seething, youthful anger in the Highlands and an urgent impatience to de-mythologize the sentimental Scotland of yore, Scotland and the world are the beneficiaries.
In Small Faces, co-writers Gillies and Billy MacKinnon, brothers who grew up in working-class Glasgow, have transformed their complex memories of the place into a drama of male adolescence that recalls both the hard-edged British "kitchen sink" films of the Fifties and Sixties and contemporary works about the traumas of youth such as Boyz N the Hood. It's the tale of a bewildered thirteen-year-old, Lex MacLean (Iain Robertson), who in 1968 finds himself buffeted between opposing forces, forces personified by his own older brothers. Bobby MacLean (J.S. Duffy) is a glowering, mean-spirited lad who doesn't give a second thought to killing his kid brother's goldfish and is inexorably drawn to a dandified tough named Charlie Sloan (Garry Sweeney), head of the local street gang. Alan MacLean (Joseph McFadden) is the sensitive, artistic brother, whose sketches and paintings could be a ticket out of the gray, downtrodden Govanhill neighborhood where they're all trapped.
Who will win the "wee man" Lex's troubled soul? It's a classic question, fraught with the perils of cliche. The MacKinnons manage to reinvent it.
Before we learn Lex's fate, director Gillies MacKinnon provides a rich tapestry of time and place, freighted with the dramatic irony of teenage boys caught in a limbo between schoolyard pranks and bloody urban war. When Bobby gives Lex a pellet gun, he inadvertently plinks Malky (Kevin McKidd), the half-crazed leader of the Tongs, a gang from another neighborhood. At the same time, brother Alan has begun dating Joanne (Laura Fraser), Malky's former childhood love. These events turn the MacLean brothers into marked men-children and promise a battle between Charlie Sloan's gang and Malky's Tongs in the wet, chill streets of a dying city.
MacKinnon, who made his feature-film debut with the wry Irish comedy The Playboys, seems even more comfortable in his hometown (which has, by all accounts, been economically and culturally revivified), working with some of Scotland's best young actors. The texture of industrial Glasgow in the Sixties is recaptured through the nasty little spectacles of showy teenagers head-butting each other's faces and brandishing straight razors in back alleys. Because of the period, I suppose, these Scottish toughs seem slightly more akin to the singing, dancing antagonists of West Side Story than to, say, the ruthless gangbangers in Menace II Society. But for Lex and the others, the threat is real enough: Their childhoods are at risk; so are their necks.
The real revelation in Small Faces is the flip side of street life, which is the high regard the Glasgow working class has (or had) for art and intellect. The MacLean boys' weary and widowed mother (Clare Higgins) may be overwhelmed by poverty in a three-room flat, but she still pops art quizzes on her wayward boys using reproductions on the covers of magazines. In his shiny, sky-blue suit, Charlie Sloan is every inch the small-time thug, but his living room is stuffed with books, and his proudest moment arrives when he has the gang break into an art museum, then orders Alan MacLean to sketch his likeness into a group portrait of Scottish political heroes. In a film built on dichotomies--youth and experience, innocence and corruption--none looms larger than creativity and violence.
Is this vision of growing up an act of nostalgia? The MacKinnon brothers insist that it is not, and in the end, the crux of their movie--little Lex's fate--becomes all the more dramatic for the choices he has. "I dreamt I was a man," he tells us in the narration. "Luckily, when I woke up I was still a boy."
Not everybody gets that choice--not these days. There's a sense of relief and gratitude in Small Faces that ennobles it without verging into sappiness. A scene in which Lex--a boy with big, sad eyes and, lately, a split nose for a battle scar--regains his youth with a stop at a Saturday matinee crammed with kids is just as lean and unsentimental as the rest of the film. Among their many filmmaking gifts, the MacKinnons know how to transmit emotion without wallowing in it. That boy sitting with the other children in the movie house suggests both of them, too. We know it. But they're wise enough not to stress the point.
Meanwhile, what new cinematic wonders can we now expect from bonny Scotland? Prior to the controversial Trainspotting, a dark and witty drama of greed called Shallow Grave also made its way across the Atlantic, and the country's burgeoning film industry is reportedly hitting high gear even as we speak. What an exciting prospect. Here in the colonies, we may not yet understand every dense stretch of Scots dialect, and we may still be in the dark about the particulars of a culture we haven't seen very often until now. But we'll find our way through the heather.
Small Faces. Screenplay by Gillies and Billy MacKinnon. Directed by Gillies MacKinnon. With Iain Robertson, Joseph McFadden, J.S. Duffy, Clare Higgins, Garry Sweeney and Kevin McKidd.
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