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British Film Review: Sixteen
Directed By Rob Brown
Turning 16 may not have the same cache as 18 or 21, but it’s still a milestone. It’s the age of consent in the UK, means you can get married with parental consent and also makes it legal to play the National Lottery or fly a glider. And buy liqueur chocolates! For the teenager at the centre of Rob Brown’s Sixteen, however, it means leaving school and fulfilling a dream.
But first he has to put his past behind him. Jumah (Roger Jean Nsengiyumva) lives with his adoptive mother in a Bromley tower block. It’s his sixteenth birthday in a day or two, has a girlfriend and dreams of becoming a barber so, to the outside world, seems to be doing OK. On an evening out with a mate, he witnesses a shocking event which brings back memories of his past in The Congo, his home country. Intimidated by the people responsible, he struggles to decide whether he should tell what he knows or keep quiet. Violence is back in his life whether he wants it or not.
Best known for making shorts, this is Brown’s first foray into feature films and it actually made its first appearance at the London Film Festival back in 2013. Only now does it make it to the big screen and its distribution is limited. But it’s been worth the wait.
We get a hint of Jumah’s short fuse early on when he’s jostled at school and breaks the other boy’s nose. Maybe he’s just hot tempered …… But as we unpeel his story, it all becomes clear. It’s the reason why he loses his rag so easily, why he’s reluctant to let his girlfriend touch his chest and why he dismisses even his friend Alex (Deon Williams) as “just a kid”. He’s seen and experienced far more than his contemporaries at school because he’s a former child soldier.
And it explains a lot. He’s perceptive and can sniff a wrong ‘un at fifty paces and walks around with his head down, looking like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. What weighs him down are his memories. We have to rely totally on Nsengiyumva’s performance to understand this because there’s no visual sense of his nightmarish past – a hint or two would have done the job – but he’s more than up to the task. He has an extraordinary face which, while appearing to do little, is remarkably expressive and perfectly suited to the camera. As Jumah, he’s an old head on young shoulders, so there’s something incongruous about seeing him in school uniform. But, then, he’s a sixteen year old.
The relationship between him and his adoptive mother, Laura (Rachel Stirling, probably the only familiar face in the film) is beautifully judged. There’s a close bond between them and she’s given up a lot to adopt him – including her relationship – but she still finds him difficult to understand.
Billed as an urban thriller, Sixteen doesn’t have quite enough in the way of suspense to live up to that description, but it really scores as a study of the lasting effects of violence and war on a young man. And keeping its story so tight that it’s compressed into just over 80 minutes gives it an immediacy that sits comfortably with the raw emotions on display, especially from Jumah himself.
Brown’s chosen to film in a fly-on-the-wall, semi-documentary style, with lots of hand held camera work. Constantly subdued lighting – tunnels, corridors, corners – make the estate look sinister and diminishing light is also used to bookend each section of the film’s narrative. They’re very distinct and captions telling us where we are in the narrative are totally unnecessary.
Sixteen as an age is a rite of passage, but with limitations. In Sixteen the film, it’s more fundamental. As a child soldier, Jumah must have thought he’d never make it that far. But he has and, even if the ending is a little too pat, the fact that he has his whole future ahead of him is celebration enough. Despite his erratic behaviour, there’s something appealing about him. Maybe it’s his intelligence, maybe it’s his perceptiveness. Or maybe it’s the sadness in the back of his eyes.
'Sixteen' is currently on limited release in the UK.
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