Small Faces (Gillies Mackinnon)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

Occasionally -- not nearly as often as I'd like -- I manage to see a movie about which I know virtually nothing. Unlike Trainspotting, which I'd been hearing and reading about for months before I had an opportunity to actually, you know, see it, Small Faces snuck up on me; the only thing I knew going in was that it's Scottish and involves three brothers, two of which at some point in the narrative ride bikes (this last from a ubiquitous publicity still). Turns out -- here, let me spoil it for all of you -- that it's about Scottish gang wars circa 1968, and their profound effect upon the family in question. This is familiar territory, apart from (for young, sheltered Americans like myself) the cultural specifics of geography and period, and Small Faces doesn't really do anything new or exciting with its coming-of-age story, which finds youngest brother Lex (the very talented Iain Robertson) caught between warring Glasgow factions, as well as divided in his affection for and loyalty toward his two elder siblings. Nor does the film go anywhere in particular; when it ended, I felt as though it could have continued for several more hours, even though an arbitrary sort of closure had theoretically been reached. But it's never less than fascinating, in spite of its general aimlessness, because of both the skill with which it's been created and the sense of immediacy and truth that it imparts. Ridiculous of me to make such a claim, really -- I know fuckall about Glasgow in 1968 -- yet I can't help feeling that Small Faces is fundamentally accurate in virtually every detail; it simply feels right. The fine, naturalistic performances certainly deserve much of the credit, but so, too, do the brothers behind the camera, whose oblique method of storytelling suits the material perfectly. The Mackinnons (director Gillies cowrote the film with his brother Billy, who produced -- somewhere, the Coens are seething, or chortling, or both) have enough confidence in their audience to simply plop us into the middle of this saga without "establishing" anything for us. A few hints are provided during the film's opening credits sequence, in which the drama is quite literally mapped out, but after that, we're on our own. It's up to us to piece together stray lines of dialogue and vague sidelong glances -- to determine, through careful and patient observation, just what the hell is going on. This sort of willful opacity requires a delicate balancing act, in which confusion continually grapples with insight, and the Mackinnons handle it beautifully. It also requires trust and faith on the part of both filmmakers and spectators -- qualities we could do with a lot more of on either side.