Ladybird, Ladybird (1994)
★★★★ / ★★★★
After Maggie (Crissy Rock) sings a song at a karaoke bar, Jorge (Vladimir Vega), impressed by her performance, approaches and invites her for a drink. Though she is with friends, she accepts and the two sit in a quieter corner to talk. Within minutes, Maggie’s sadness, something that Jorge has detected, unspools: she tells the stranger before her that her four children have been taken away by Social Services. Very soon a court hearing will determine if Maggie could keep them or if the kids must be displaced.
Written by Rona Munro and directed by Ken Loach, “Ladybird, Ladybird” is an enthralling and educational exploration of a woman’s relationship with a social system. Whenever Social Services get involved and kids are taken away, it is easy to jump to conclusions and blame the parents. And why not? There is a pattern and there are many irresponsible parents out there who are not fit to raise a child. And yet more challenging is taking a step back and considering all the facts—information that we do not have when there is a big scene in our neighborhood. This film paints an entire history and makes sure that we have the relevant facts. Suddenly, the demarcation between right and wrong is out of focus.
The picture benefits greatly from Rock’s performance. Her capacity to jump between being personable and delivering explosive fits of rage, like turning on a light switch, without hitting a false note is scary and impressive. The way she plays Maggie, there is no doubt that her character is an angry person but there is also a lot of pain and hurt behind the screaming and hollering. Despite her volatile nature, we believe that she loves her children.
Maggie is likely a woman we see every time take a trip to the supermarket. You know, the one with so many kids but not enough hands to keep them from going all over the place. I’ve given a Maggie a dirty look and judged. Why bring your kids to the store when you can’t control them, right? This film inspired me to think twice. Great films makes us look within by placing us in someone else’s shoes and encourages us to be more sympathetic.
The director maintains control of the camera even if a scuffle turns into a tornado. At least these days, the inclination is to shake as to create the illusion of reality, to be “in the middle of the action.” Here, it is unnecessary to move the camera like so. The struggle occurs only after we have an understanding of the main players, what is at stake, and what it implies about the future. We yearn for an alternative but it is difficult to break the cycle.
In the film, there is a poem told orally, in Spanish, about a candle that lights other candles that have died out. The relationship between Maggie and Jorge can be viewed this way. What they share is good but, like real relationships, it requires a lot of work. Sometimes it burns. There is no villain here: not Maggie, not the Social Services, not even the nosy and racist neighbor. There is only our prejudice and how sometimes we might surprise even ourselves when reality is wrinkled and upside down.
Raining Stones (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★
With his daughter’s first communion coming up, Bob (Bruce Jones) feels pressure to purchase a new dress for Coleen (Gemma Phoenix). The problem is, their household is on a very tight budget. They simply cannot afford to splurge on non-necessities. Even Anne (Julie Brown), Bob’s wife, thinks that it is all right that Coleen wears a dress she already has since it is for a one-time event. Bob thinks that is exactly the point: since it is a special occasion, their little girl deserves to have a new dress, just like the other kids do on their special day.
If there is beauty in the mundane, “Raining Stones” is a good example of it. It is perceptive, smartly executed, and grounded in reality. Written by Jim Allen and directed by Ken Loach, the film tells a simple story and yet just about every moment of it is made interesting because it has a defined point of view. We follow a man who is so desperate for cash that we wonder how far he will go to get a couple of quid.
Emphasis is placed on the family’s Catholicism. If a bible, a cross, and other religious symbols are not within the frame during the interior shots, the topic of conversation is Christ. We see the inside of a church several times. We hear a part of a sermon. Bob even visits a priest for a job. Since Bob fears Christ, tension is created. No matter which avenue he traverses, he ends up facing a dead end. It appears as though there is little hope of purchasing the dress on time. “I believe in God, I pray, but it doesn’t put food on the table,” Bob says at one point. Clearly, this is a man pushed at the end of his rope.
The picture is shot with a love for the working class. Not once do we feel that the filmmakers are looking down on their subjects. On the contrary, it honors them by showing poor neighborhoods as is, both the bad and the good, and avoiding generalizations about their lifestyles. I enjoyed watching Bob interacting with his community. The camera enters various establishments and inside are ordinary people doing whatever is necessary to get by. I wondered if they were professional actors. Many of them have the details just right. For example, the posturing of someone who has worked with sewing machines for years.
Some scenes are allowed to drag. This is a risky approach but when it is done well, it works wonders because it creates a specific universe for the characters on screen. Such is the case here. The first fifteen minutes is very amusing. Bob and Tommy (Ricky Tomlinson) have stolen a sheep. They figure that they can sell its meat for a couple of pounds. However, neither of them have the stomach to kill it. They wish to whack its head but it just will not keep still. You have to wonder if they are more nervous than the animal.
Selfish Giant, The (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Here is a piece of work that aims to capture reality as is and not dilute it—even only slightly—for mass public consumption. What results is a very rich, layered, textured, and specific film that shows the every day reality of two boys, best of friends and almost inseparable, living in a working class British neighborhood. With each decision they make, we get an idea about what kind of adult they might become. It is likely they will not do anything extraordinary.
“The Selfish Giant,” written and directed by Clio Barnard, unfolds like a Ken Loach picture. It does not have a typical arc commonly found in Hollywood mainstream movies, but it is teeming with precise details about a specific group of people living a specific way of life. And that makes the work thoroughly fascinating.
Notice that the use of bright, bold, warm colors are minimized. Just about every object looks gray, cold, and even the colors appear as though vivacity had been sucked away from them. Observe the types of clothing the children wear. They appear secondhand, dirty, rife with holes, very often not ironed. Even the food they consume lack nutritious spark, often from a can or packed with empty sugar. Even the children know they are poor because they are teased by their peers at school or random passersby outside their homes.
The film’s memorable images involve hands. It is, after all, about two kids, Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas), who decide to collect random metal scraps and transport the items to the local scrapyard, managed by a man named Kitten (Sean Gilder). Arbor and Swifty hope to make extra cash and help their mothers financially. The two boys have vastly different personalities and temperaments but they get along somehow. The picture is most fascinating when that equilibrium and feeling of safety are disturbed.
Chapman and Thomas are excellent finds because they come across natural in the roles. They are never required to look movie-cute or film-friendly so that viewers will love them and therefore relate to their plight through such avenues. Rather, they are relatable because they are required to respond to challenging situations in very real and convincing ways. Notice the contrasting dynamics between when it is the two of them versus another party and when the boys themselves clash. There is kinship in their close friendship.
The picture also works as a social critique without necessarily placing blame. For instance, most obvious is in the way it touches upon the question of whether public schools at times give up too easily on wayward children. But look a little closer and notice that parents are rarely around. And when confronted by unacceptable behavior, parents are unequipped to handle the situation. Either that or it appears as though they’ve given up a long time ago.
“The Selfish Giant” is spearheaded by smart writing and confident direction. There is no sentimentalism, only a humanist approach to a very difficult subject. It offers one of the most moving and honest endings I have seen in a long time.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Billy (Dai Bradley), a fifteen-year-old with a history of theft, wakes up at six o’clock every morning and delivers newspapers before heading to school. Once there, however, he does not exhibit much interest. Within a few months, he knows he will have to get a job though his interests lack range and focus. Most of his energy is directed toward surviving bullies, often kids who are older than him, and adults on a power trip. His life at home is not any better. His mother, Mrs. Casper (Lynne Perrie), and his brother, Jud (Freddie Fletcher), are on each other’s throats constantly. When he ends up at a neighboring farm one afternoon and notices birds hovering about, something about them, perhaps their freedom, captures his interest. He hopes to have a kestrel that he can train.
It is convenient to label “Kes,” based on the book “A Kestrel for a Knave” by Barry Hines, as another film about a young person who learns the importance of taking responsibility after having and relating to an animal, but the picture is far deeper than a familiar template. Propelled by naturalistic performances, the story gathers power, first slowly and then suddenly, through the events of every day, from the mundane to the memorable and life-changing. At its best, it is feverish poetry, so relatable to those aware of the seed from which one’s passion in life has sprouted.
Billy looking for a book about falconry that details how to take care of the animal and train it, reminded me of the time when I was about seven years of age and stumbled upon a green Biology textbook in a dilapidated house with mountains of sand inside. The way the camera lingers on Billy being so transfixed on that book is a sure signal that he is not a hopeless case, despite his tiresome environment and people who treat him as if he were of little value.
Not one picture or word is shown on the book he deeply covets so I turned to my own memory, to try to imagine how it must be like for him. Maybe he struggles to make sense of certain words as I did when I read alien language in my precious book like “osmosis,” “ependyma,” and “neuroglia.” Maybe he is mesmerized by the pictures of falcons or how a trainer should hold one’s arm when summoning the bird as I did when I stared at an image of a worm’s internal anatomy. I felt him thinking, absorbing, and trying to make sense of things that may not quite match up.
Billy has a lot of anger simmering below the surface. The picture places captures human behavior with accuracy and efficiency. This is a young man so used to taking without earning. He takes the bird from its nest. He takes the book from the store. He takes money that does not belong to him. He is not surrounded by people who strive to lead by example. Many of the adults are also in the habit of taking: taking jabs in the form punishment as well as taking a private shame and letting others have it in order to experience an evanescent feeling of superiority. Notice how a hilarious football game led by the mercurial gym teacher (Brian Glover) is turned into a portrait of maddening cruelty in the locker room.
The next two memorable scenes contrast each other. Several kids are sent to Mr. Gryce’s office, the headmaster played by Bob Bowes, for being caught smoking. A tiny boy, not part of the group that has been caught, is sent by his teacher with a message for the headmaster. Mr. Gryce mistakes the boy’s purpose in being there so he, too, gets a lecture and the stick, ordered to shut his mouth every time he starts to explain. Though this boy gets only one scene, I related to him completely. I have been in a similar situation when I was a kid and it is the kind of thing I will carry with me, the anger within for being punished despite not doing anything wrong, for the rest of my life. In Mr. Farthing’s class, on the other hand, emphasis is placed on being allowed to speak, which is so important, so much more meaningful than simply telling students what to do or by censuring them. This leads to a most moving scene involving Billy and his newfound passion.
Once in a while a movie comes along, grabs you, and does not let go. “Kes,” directed by Ken Loach, is a perfect example for it demands not just to be seen but to be experienced and thought about afterwards. Many will see this and consider it old-fashioned, from the discipline imposed by authority figures to what the bird symbolizes, which may hold some weight given the right set of arguments, but what it offers transcends what is right and what is wrong by focusing on what is and its consequences.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Tickets,” directed by Abbas Kiarostami, Ken Loach and Ermanno Olmi, weaved three stories aboard a train heading toward Rome. The first was a pharmacology professor (Carlo Delle Piane) who rushed home because he promised he would be back for his grandson’s birthday. But when he met the PR Lady (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) of the company who helped him obtain a last-minute spot on the train, he couldn’t help but think of her on the way home. The second strand involved a difficult aging Italian woman (Silvana De Santis) and what it seemed like to be her son named Filippo (Filippo Trojano). Trouble began when they knowingly occupied seats which happened to be reserved. The final story involved three young men, supermarket attendants in their hometown, from Scotland (Martin Compston, Gary Maitland, William Ruane) on their way to see an epic football match. When one of them couldn’t find his train ticket, one of them was convinced that a kid, an Albanian refugee, was to blame. I watched “Tickets” in complete fascination because each story had a special story to tell. I loved that the stories weren’t necessarily important in order for us to appreciate them. The film started off with a quiet power propelled by every day happenings. Feelings of loneliness were explored when the professor fantasized about a woman whom he might never see again. We’ve all been in his situation where we stared at our computer screen and struggled to capture the right words to someone who we considered to hold a certain importance: an employer, a friend, a crush. Its tone was different from the other two because, due to the way it was shot at times, the aging man’s reality almost felt like a fantasy. For instance, everyone happened to turn their heads at the same time to look at a certain exciting happening in a corner. Those of us who’ve been on train rides know that there’s all sorts of distraction going on that it’s rare for everyone to focus on only one thing. The dream-like quality, purposely slow-paced, worked because it highlighted the professor’s yearning for romance. The bit involving the Italian woman and her escort held my attention because of the way it unfolded. I had all sorts of wild ideas like Filippo having recently woken up from a coma, an amnesia as a temporary side effect, because it explained why he had so many questions about his own life. His conversations with a childhood friend, whom he initially didn’t recognize, was often interrupted by the Italian lady and her ridiculous demands. I wondered how Filippo could have the patience to withstand her nasty personality. I would have left her on the train, her ticket hidden my pocket. And then there was the three lads forced to weigh the importance between a football match and helping refugees in need. I think it was the strongest of the three. It had a subtle lesson about tolerance and the kindness that three young men exuded was ultimately hopeful. Having been around individuals like them in public transportations, I expected them to be rowdy and nothing more. However, they ended up having a lot of heart as their struggle to do good cut through the fog. I wanted to get to know them more. “Tickets” offered different stories, but the way it was put together highlighted common themes such as what it meant to love, in more ways than one, other people. Sometimes we do need to be reminded that it’s important to care for things outside of ourselves.