Film Review: Small Faces

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(NOTE: This review was for a film class I took in college. At this time, there weren’t many films that I’d seen that had accurately captured what a particular subculture was, but this film was one of the ones that did. Since then, I have been exposed to older films that were fairly authentic (Bronco Bullfrog) as well as newer ones (This is England) that did a respectable job as well….)

“Accurate” isn’t a word I usually associate with Hollywood films and their portrayal of subcultures, most notably mods and skinheads. Some indies, however, have gotten closer to the mark. They range from the good in “Romper Stomper,” and Phil Daniels in “Quadrophenia” to the laughably bad in “Higher Learning” and  “SLC Punk” amongst others. Usually one has to look overseas to get it right, and such is the case with another movie dealing with subcultures, notably the working-class Scottish mod in “Small Faces.”

Screenwriters Gillies and Billy MacKinnion rely on their own childhoods and personal narratives growing up in Glasgow in the late 60’s. This gives it a realistic “I was there” feel that the director Gillies intended. “I began to have a sense of losing roots… as if my strength was drawn from something within my past, that I was moving away from that and I had to go back,” he said of the experience.

The story itself relates the coming-of-age of a family of three brothers – the MacLeans – and the hardships that life had to offer in Glasgow in the period. As noted by past reviewers, one thing that makes a seemingly simple story like this work is its unpredictability. One minute it’s dealing with serene family issues, and the next it explodes into violence. Which, I guess, is how life is. Doesn’t follow a plot, does it?

The brothers MacLean are, as noted, the main characters. They are fatherless, and are being raised by their single-mom. However, this, too, avoids cliché. The life isn’t really hard or dreary in the absence of the father. The boys have a good roof over their heads and a caring family around them, although it does have it’s bits of trouble interlaced as well, mainly stemming from oldest brother Bobby’s unpredictability. It is mainly when they leave the house, in the outside world, that things get rough, as they do in real-life. Gimmie shelter.

The youngest of the MacClean clan, Lex (Iain Robertson) is our guide through the movie, and it is primarily his tale. He shows us the effects that being an impulsive young boy can have and the challenges that being young produce. The middle brother, Alan, is an artist struggling to escape the limitations and narrow world of Glasgow, and oldest Bobby, is a head-case hard man who runs with one of the local gangs, led by the vile Sloan, who is just as deplorable as the rival hard man Malky Johnson (Kevin McKidd of “Trainspotting” fame) of the notoriously-evil Tongs.

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The time-period is 1968, I believe, and features authentic style mod culture at it’s finest. Although never mentioned by name, it is implied that this is the case. From the film’s title, to the Who-cover band at the youth disco to the  Ben Sherman Lex shoplifts, to the sharp-dressing Sloan to the way the characters are all art-lovers, it’s all mod cons here, for sure.

The cinematography is stunning as well. You can really feel the dirt and grime of the city, of Glasgow’s slums. Once having been whisked away to Tongland, you can see that these boys, these “hard men” are simply the product of a hard environment. Nice shots of overcast skies outside the Tongland slum foreshadow the approaching storm in the life of the MacLean brothers. All very well done, down to the realistic dialogue and everyday scenarios. No sense in getting long-winded about the plot. Suffice to say, we follow the brothers through the trials and rites of manhood, involving gang fights and broads, with surprising results best not spoiled here.

The MacKinnon brothers should be proud of this rootsy effort. Fans of the coming-of-age genre won’t be disappointed, nor will those interested in gritty, working-class tales, nor those with an interest in the mod culture and how it really was. There seems to be something in it that will appeal to everyone.

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