Scottish director Gillies MacKinnon’s “Small Faces” is being described as a look at the lives of three brothers on the fringes of gang life in 1960s Glasgow. It is certainly that, but more importantly, it is also a “baby of the family” story, a universal theme that plays out differently depending on the place, the baby and the family.
The family of “Small Faces” is the MacLeans, single mom Lorna (Clare Higgins), caring but overwhelmed; older sons Alan (Joseph McFadden), a sensitive, would-be artist, and Bobby (J.S. Duffy), tormented and violent; and the baby, vulnerable 13-year-old Lex (Iain Richardson).
Called the “wee man” by his brothers, Lex is a kid on the cusp, open to the influence of both brothers and dazzled by the pace of life among his elders. Lex is leaning in the directions of both brothers without even knowing it. He’s a bit of an artist; he plays the trombone and draws. But he also loves getting into mischief, which is easy to do when hanging out with oldest brother Bobby.
Much of the mischief is impetuous and generally harmless, but when Bobby hands Lex an air gun and he fires it impulsively into a rugby scrum on a local field, things get serious fast. Life, like games, is often a matter of inches and luck, and when that shot finds the eye of the leader of the neighborhood’s most vicious gang, the MacLeans’ lives are forever altered through a subsequent cycle of violence and murder.
MacKinnon (“The Playboys,” “A Simple Twist of Fate”) wrote “Small Faces” with his younger brother Billy, using a few anecdotes from their own youth in ‘60s Glasgow as reference points, and the result is as raw and real as any youth drama, including the year’s other Scottish import “Trainspotting.” “Small Faces” doesn’t have the energy or style of Danny Boyle’s film--it was made on a TV budget--but it’s much more personal, and its characters easier to relate to (not to mention, easier to understand).
Setting aside the ill-conceived “A Simple Twist of Fate,” which he directed for writer-star Steve Martin, MacKinnon’s strength is his patient development of place and people. “Small Faces” and “The Playboys,” the story of an unwed mother’s impact on her pious Catholic village in 1950s Ireland, couldn’t be further apart in tone and context. Yet, the principal characters of each are so carefully and richly developed you can’t resist having an emotional stake in their lives.
By the time Lex fires that air gun, we know him so well and the danger of his environment, that it’s like watching a neighbor’s son walk into a minefield. Maybe he’ll get to the other side safely, maybe not.
The most powerful scene in the movie is one in which Lex slips into a children’s theater, an oasis away from the violence outside, and he gets swept up in the mood and the security of it. There is innocence all over the wee man’s face, but we watch it with more dread than joy, knowing it will last no longer than a song.
* MPAA rating: R, for violence and language. Times guidelines: violence too graphic and situations too intense for children.
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Iain Robertson: Lex MacLean
Joseph McFadden: Alan MacLean
J.S. Duffy: Bobby MacLean
Clare Higgins: Lorna MacLean
Kevin McKidd: Malky Thompson
A Skyline Production, released by October Films. Director Gillies MacKinnon. Producer Billy MacKinnon. Screenplay Billy and Gillies MacKinnon. Cinematography John de Borman. Editor Scott Thomas. Music John Keane. Production design Zoe Macleod. Art direction Pat Campbell. Costumes Kate Carin.
* Playing exclusively at Westside Pavilion Cinemas, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 475-0202, and Edwards University, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (714) 854-8811.