The violent flipside to the swinging ’60s is captured to powerful effect in “Small Faces,” a Scottish-set drama of restless hormones and teen confusion that reps a powerful return to roots by helmer Gillies Mac-Kinnon after his Steve Martin starrer “A Simple Twist of Fate.” More coin could have given this low-budgeter rosier bigscreen chances, but fests should definitely give this BBC-led production slots in their skeds prior to tube dates.
Setting is Glasgow (MacKinnon’s home town), 1968, where widow Lorna MacLean (Clare Higgins, good in a shaded performance) has her hands full with her three teenage kids: screwed-up Bobby (J.S. Duffy), who runs with the gang led by thug Charlie Sloan (Gerry Sweeney); sensitive Alan (Jospeh McFadden), who just wants to go to art school; and 13-year-old midget Lex (Iain Robertson), a self-styled “genius” who’s awed by all the “adult action going on around him.
Life for Lex is pranks with his bros, being punished at school and secretly getting blotto while serving his elders drinks. But when he accidentally shoots the psycho leader of the feared Tongs gang, Malky Thompson (Kevin McKidd), in the head with his air gun, Lex gets drawn into the escalating violence that’s the only escape valve for tenement youths in the north.
Connecting the main characters is Joanne (Laura Fraser), childhood friend of the nutty Malky, dreamgirl of the repressed Bobby and skating pal of the disturbed mother’s boy Charlie.
One of the pic’s strengths is its gradual easing into the subject matter. Gang warfare and the muchfeared Malky appear only halfway through, by which time we’re fully acquainted with the main characters’ dreams and aspirations — including Mom, whose visiting Yank brother-in-law (Ian McElhinney) seems to offer the only hope to revive her downbeat life.
Though the violence, when it comes, is brutal and bloody, pic’s overall tone is more irreal than grungily realistic. Shafts of tough Glaswegian humor, and off-center lensing by John de Borman, give the movie a remembered quality that fits with having events seen through the eyes of the young, self-possessed Lex, who only half understands the consequences of his actions.
Unfortunately, budget restrictions show in other scenes, especially some unattractively lit interiors, which tag the movie more for small-screen outings than on the big sheet. Performances are terrific down the line, with casting on the nose. As the girl in the middle of all the male bravado. Fraser makes a considerable impression.
John Keane’s music is a major plus in shadowing both the incipient violence and the movie’s more dreamlike aspects.