Far removed from the boisterous, dryly comic “Raining Stones,” Ken Loach’s “Ladybird, Ladybird” is a tough, steamrolling, semi-verite look at (non-) family life in 1990s Britain through the eyes of a battered but ballsy unmarried mother caught between her own willfulness and an intrusive nanny state. Propelled by a natural, gutsy performance by newcomer Crissy Rock (who won best actress at the Berlin fest), pic looks set to be a hot fest favorite and should translate into robust arthouse and tube sales, though public appetite for this emotional bone-shaker could prove limited in certain territories.
In tone and content, Loach hasn’t directed anything this emotionally powerful since his earlier work of the 1960s and early 1970s. Main character here recalls the battling women of his 1966 telepic “Cathy Come Home” and first feature “Poor Cow” (1968), with the nihilism of the 1972 “Family Life” updated to the falsely caring 1990s.
Though Loach stressed at its Berlin fest world preem that pic is not simply a frontal assault on Britain’s over-intrusive social services, but rather a wider look at the poverty trap into which single mothers can fall, the film still carries a strong anti-establishment flavor that chimes well with the rest of his work.
Based on a true story, pic has Maggie (Rock), a tough Liverpudlian mother of four, meeting gentle Paraguayan Jorge (Vladimir Vega) in a London bar where she sings. The pair bond fast, with flashbacks pasting in Maggie’s history, first as a child with an abusive father and later as a battered mother forced to move into a women’s refuge after being hospitalized due to an attack by one of her lovers (a sequence of sudden, shocking violence).
Scenes of her and Jorge together, underscored by warm Latino guitar music, function almost as romantic interludes between the chunks of history. Almost an hour in, pic’s focus settles on this current relationship, cranked into a higher gear by the news that she’s expecting another child.
Loach then progressively tightens the screws as the authorities take her baby girl into care, Jorge gets heat from the immigration authorities after his visa expires, and the relationship comes under strain as Maggie’s insecurities resurface. Ending seems to offer little escape from the vicious circle, until a postscript updating the real Maggie’s story.
Though the movie sounds irredeemably depressing on paper, there’s a real warmth to the central relationship that lifts “Ladybird” above similar-sounding exercises in Brit self-loathing. Loach’s theme seems to be that, left alone, most people are more than capable of sorting out their own problems, or at least finding a modus vivendi.
Villains of the piece are clearly defined as economic circumstances and legalistic do-gooders rather than any inherent British character trait for self-abuse. In its portraits of everyday working-class characters, pic also sports a low-key black humor that may be lost on some auds but is there for the taking.
A Liverpool standup comedian with no acting experience, Rock exudes a no-nonsense, working-class sensibility, moving easily from acerbic Merseyside wit to sequences of emotional violence that carry a docu charge. Vega, an exiled Chilean based in London since 1978, is also on the money in a role that could easily have deteriorated into a lovelorn wimp.
Other roles are small but cast (and scripted) with an accuracy that’s often chilling.
Pic inhabits the gray area between docudrama and verite filming that Loach made his own more than two decades ago.
If this outing has faults, it’s that the story essentially springs few surprises once the board is laid out, and that Rock’s breakdowns and screaming sessions lose some of their power as familiarity with her character deepens. Pic could easily be tightened by 10 minutes with no loss of clout.
Tech credits are OK, with discreet cutting by Jonathan Morris and unshowy lensing by Barry Ackroyd. Sound has a caught-on-the-run quality that fits the movie’s style but makes no concessions to Rock’s thick Liverpudlian accent, which could prove troublesome for some viewers.