A coming-of-age classic

Interview, Sept, 1996 by Graham Fuller

Small Faces, the stylish new Scottish movie that was filmed in Glasgow around the same time as Trainspotting, is less kinetic than Danny Boyle's Brit-pop- (and Iggy Pop-) driven drugfest, but I can't get it out of my mind. That's partly because I was in Glasgow recently, being rudely reminded of how bleak British cities erupt on Saturday nights. Howls, screeches, taunts, and threats provided the soundtrack to the revels in the Sauchiehall Street area; shaven-headed adolescent "hard men" lurched into shop windows and each other; miniskirted girls hunted in packs and lingered behind department stores chugging beers. (The kids in Kids wouldn't last five minutes with this lot.) There was an overwhelming aura of menace and McEwan's lager. I loved and hated it at the same time, but then I was just an American-based Sassenach on holiday.

Small Faces, though, I unequivocally love. Set in the Govanhill and Easterhouse neighborhoods of Glasgow in 1968, the film was co-written by brothers Gillies MacKinnon, who directed it, and Billy MacKinnon, who co-produced it, and it's their memory of what it was like to grow up sensitive and artistic in a world of knuckles, knives, and brick-and-bottle gang warfare.

The cheeky, pint-sized hero, thirteen-year-old Lex (Iain Robertson), lives in a tenement with his careworn, widowed mother, Lorna (Clare Higgins), his gentle middle brother, Alan (Joseph McFadden), who's an accomplished art student, and his slow, thuggish eldest brother, Bobby (J.S. Duffy). As these brothers become enmeshed with two local gangs and the wry, beautiful seventeen-year-old Joanne (Laura Fraser), who's involved with both gang bosses, the movie morphs imperceptibly from comedy to tragedy.

Its title recalls the English mod band that had a string of hits before they acquired Rod Stewart as their singer and became the Faces in 1969. In mod parlance, faces were style-setting local heroes. Mod was over by '68, but there are a pair of late faces in the MacKinnons' movie: the psychotic proto-hippy Malky Johnson (Trainspotting alum Kevin McKidd), who leads the Easterhouse Tongs gang, and his rival, Charlie Sloan (Garry Sweeney), the Egon Schiele-loving dandy and so-called "working-class Medici," who enlists the reluctant Lex into his crew after he shoots Malky in the face with an air gun.

Charlie is a surrogate dad for the fatherless Lex, though his patronage turns quickly to cruelty. He threatens to strand Lex in Tongland, gives him a bloody nose, and allows his henchmen to hospitalize a brilliant (gay, we surmise) artist friend of Alan and Lex's after Charlie's gang girls have roughed him up. Malky is more symbolic, a nightmare echo of the father Lex never knew, but who apparently battered Bobby as a child. Like the glamorous Ace Face (Sting) in Quadrophenia (1979), Charlie and Malky are idols with feet of clay. By the end of the movie, one of these paper tigers has been denounced by Lex as a dead loss and the other is simply dead. In Small Faces' chilling ice-rink finale, one of Lex's brothers dies, too, but the falls of Charlie and Malky are just as crucial to his rite of passage. It's only when we see that our heroes and bogeymen are mortal fools that we are able to reject them - and grow up. Lex may not even be ready to do that. His parting words are: "I dreamt I was a man . . . luckily when I woke up, I was still a boy." It's possible to gloss over that as a neat epigram before the final curtain, but it hints at Lex's repression of the events he has witnessed and of his nascent feelings for the movie's young Madonna, Joanne; who has decided to leave town. Where is Lex now, you want to know? Still stuck, at the age of forty, in Govanhill - I glanced across at its skyline on my way to Glasgow International Airport - or is he off somewhere making movies?

Posited in the opening and closing scenes as a dream, Small Faces edges toward surrealism with more restraint than Trainspotting and its Magritte-like set pieces. There's time in this thickly detailed reverie for an elephant to walk across Lex's path at a fairground, for a row of toy clowns to nod their heads in a couple of punctuation shots, for a cinema full of kids to sway in their seats in a nostalgia-laden Saturday-morning-matinee sequence, and for the camera to home in, in the middle of a montage, on a poster of the Glasgow Rangers soccer team on Lex and his brothers' bedroom wall, because - with one of them slain - it simply has nowhere else to go. Small Faces contrives to be reminiscent of both the dour Scottish TV dramas written by Peter MacDougall, notably 1979's Just a Boy's Game, which starred the rock star Frankie Miller, and Bill Forsyth's evocations of Glasgow's unlikely urban magic: That Sinking Feeling (1979), Gregory's Girl (1981), and Comfort and Joy (1984). Forsyth's cinema later became regretful, and there's little doubt that he influenced the MacKinnons.

To get closer in, Small Faces is indelible for the topographical complexity of its faces - Lex's, Bobby's, Lorna's, Joanne's, Charlie's. They're shot as big faces, not small ones, and they're etched with questions, conflicts, and the urges to dissemble and to lie to oneself. Then there's the movie's music. I don't mean the period pop songs by Cream, Georgie Fame, the Spencer Davis Group, and Zager & Evans (the Small Faces don't make it). The plaintive anthems of this miraculous little movie are Lorna's Gaelic lament for her murdered boy, and the eldritch wails that accompany Lex's brutal journey - wails as haunting as those on the streets of Glasgow at half past ten on any Saturday night.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Brant Publications, Inc.

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