Kes

Kes ★★★½

Although Ken Loach and Mike Leigh are often grouped together as the leading figures of British 'kitchen sink' realism, I tend to think of Leigh as being more focused on nuanced, complex characterization whereas I associate Loach more with earnest, topical, "social issue" dramas. As such, I've half-purposely avoided seeing much of Loach's work over the years, but I figured this early and universally-acclaimed film was a pretty safe bet. If nothing else, I can definitely see how hugely influential it's been on what has now become practically an entire tradition of gritty British coming-of-age films, from Lynne Ramsay's Ratcather to Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank (which pretty much borrows this film's central conceit wholesale but replaces the titular hawk with a horse, conveniently keeping the metaphoric significance intact).

I can also admire how willfully unsentimental Loach's approach to the material is, although if anything I think he actually almost risks going too far in the other direction, toward one-note, unrelenting miserablism. I get it, the kid's life is hard (and fifteen-year-old David Bradley is great in the lead role), but Loach's approach verges on heavy-handed at times. The antagonistic characters (i.e. almost all of them) aren't particularly nuanced, and there's not a lot of variation to the scenes of Billy having a rough time at school (and certain scenes, like the soccer game, go on for far longer than they needed to in order to make their point). At nearly two hours, it can start to feel like a bit of a slog, which feels like an odd thing to say about a film about childhood (albeit it an unhappy one). It resembles The 400 Blows less than it does Maurice Pialat's grim Naked Childhood, which isn't so much a criticism necessarily as it is a simple observation.

The film's relentlessly downbeat tone even seems to extend to it's visuals, which are unapologetically drab and grimy (almost as if Loach was afraid that any pictorial beauty would compromise the film's commitment to "realism"). You can almost feel the grease and dirt coming off the screen. Whereas in Ratcatcher, Ramsay found the beauty and lyricism amidst all the squalor, Loach seems to want to rub our noses in the ugliness. I won't deny that it's effective filmmaking, but it adds to the unsubtle dreariness. Just about the only respite from all the bleakness comes from the scenes of Billy training Kes, set to charmingly dated, wistfully nostalgic music that instantly evokes "1970s childhood" in my mind (and which I honestly rather enjoyed). I was surprised by how few of these scenes there actually were in the film, to be honest, and also by the rather abrupt, downbeat ending.

All this isn't to say that it's not a good film, mind you. It is (and certainly, if nothing else, any lingering fears that this would be a "children's movie" were quickly abated). Yet I can't say that my overall opinion of Loach has really changed much either. Where Leigh's films are really about people first, Loach seems more interested in illustrating society's ills, not unlike his Italian Neo-Realist predecessors. It's definitely well done for what it is, but maybe a little more effort toward visual expressiveness beyond simple documentary impulses would have been nice (that scene of Billy telling his class about training Kes is sort of the ultimately example of "telling" where a filmmaker might be better off "showing"). It might have helped a little if I hadn't also found so much of the dialogue nearly impossible to understand (not really a criticism, but subtitles would have been nice).

I will say, though, that for a bunch a council estate kids, everyone in this movie had pretty great clothes. Also nice haircuts.

Rating: 62/100

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