As a Scottish film, Small Faces is – like Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996) – something of a stylistic hybrid.
Again we start off, as in any good miserabilist UK movie, right down in the dumps. It's Glasgow 1968, and everything looks hard and cruel. But very soon we are alerted to something unique in this portrait. Two teenage brothers, Lex (Iain Robertson) and Bobby (Steven Duffy), exude more than the usual urban menace, despair or repression: they’re actually sensitive, funny guys, and they have a passionate interest in art.
Between Lex and Bobby is the third boy of the Maclean family clan, Alan (Joe McFadden). He’s a more familar generic type: the sullen head-case given to fits of violence and paranoiac shifts of loyalty. The mean streets these brothers negotiate are ruled by youth gangs and fierce territorial divides; getting out of this milieu in one piece is clearly not going to be easy for anyone.
With these elements of art and male sensitivity on one side and violent gang warfare on the other, Small Faces is set to explore its hybrid style. Prolific director Gillies MacKinnon comes up with a more daring and varied mix than Trainspotting, although this is not half as sensational a film.
Small Faces displays a vivid lyricism that recalls tough, French teen movies such as Travolta et moi (1994) or Wild Reeds (1994). These wired-up youths break into an art gallery and tear past the Old Masters on the wall, like they did in Leos Carax’s great Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991) or, further back, Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part (1964). And the figure of young Joanne (Laura Fraser) resembles those pretty teens of French cinema who are possessed by one powerful man and desperately desired by every other, less powerful guy.
On the USA-influenced side, Small Faces exhibits a high-spirited, fast-edited air of hi-jinx, a style that imbues even the most horrifying events with a thrilling, amoral air. We see elaborate power games and ruses played out between petty gang members; these intrigues evoke, on a reduced scale, the urban criminal worlds of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) or Boaz Yakin’s Fresh (1994).
Small Faces eventually revs up to melodramatic intensity in order to resolve the dilemmas of its trapped, haunted characters. On this plane it made me think of an Australian precedent, the films of Geoffrey Wright, like Lover Boy (1989) and Metal Skin (1995). Wright's movies sometimes go wrong, and Small Faces likewise goes wonky, becoming overwrought and hysterical the more it aims for strong catharsis and Big Dramatic Statement.
But that's ultimately a small objection. Small Faces is impressive and absorbing. Its energy never flags, and its ragged, streetwise characters – especially Lex – are a winning, thoroughly recognisable mixture of charm, bluff, anxiety and pure adrenalin.
MORE MacKinnon: Hideous Kinky
© Adrian Martin October 1996