Ken Loach. 1969
Tuesday July 29. Billy Wilder Theater
When I was in seventh grade, I once got pelted with mini carrot sticks in the cafeteria. I was sitting by myself, as was the usual case, drawing a comic book character with painstaking accuracy when I first felt it. I looked down and saw that it was, in fact, a mini carrot stick that had hit me in the head and then I turned to look at the direction of the trajectory. Another kid in my grade was looking straight at me, waiting for me to notice him. When I did, he looked at me like, “What are you gonna do about it?” Nothing, was the answer to that. I’m pretty sure that kid singled me out because I was alone, kind of nerdy looking and obviously caught up in what I was doing. I’m also pretty sure that if he saw my drawing, he would have thought it was pretty cool. Such is the case in Ken Loach’s Kes, a beautiful film about the cool things a child finds to occupy his time when playing with friends doesn’t seem to be one of the options.
In the case of Billy Casper, our hero, it’s the training and befriending of a hawk named Kes. The obvious symbolism being that Kes can fly around and be free in ways that Billy can’t, but the film is not about obvious symbolism. Billy isn’t even ridiculed that much, nor is he abused at home or a victim of undue circumstance. His father isn’t around and his brother’s a dick but his Mom is nice enough and there are kids that Billy seems to hang around with from time to time. But luck and opportunity are two things that seem to be in short supply as he constantly finds himself in trouble at school for offenses ranging from minor to non-existent and his small English town offers little in the way of career trajectories other than mining. Ah, mining. Is there any profession used more as a doom and gloom scenario for kids in film? Luckily this isn’t a driving factor in Loach’s approach either.
The only thing Loach seems to care about is realism and detail, both of which are captured magnificently. Why else spend fifteen minutes on a scene where Billy and his classmates play football in P.E. class? Why else have a scene where kids get disciplined by the headmaster, anchored by a character who only appears for that one instance (one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen by the way)? The answer is so that we know what a P.E. class was like for those kids. So we know what getting disciplined was like. These choices and this focus makes it so I leave the theater feeling like I know what it’s like to be a pupil of that school, and not necessarily just from Billy’s perspective. Scene after scene adds more color to an already exquisite canvas and I just couldn’t believe the performances achieved by the young actors. Non-actors rather.
I’ve read some criticism of their acting and find it absolutely unbelievable. First of all, they’re not acting because they wouldn’t know how. Second of all, this shows in one or two spots where it’s a little obvious that they are trying to hit a beat or a line and it becomes a bit stilted. But I would make that trade-off any day of the week for the rewards it reaps in the scenes that really matter. David Bradley’s Billy is on a very small list of onscreen portraits of children that succeeds effortlessly by letting the actor play a child instead of a miniature adult. He is never less than 100% captivating, most notably in a scene where he gets to explain how he trains his hawk to the entire class. By the end of that I was sure I had witnessed something quite special and I was left reminiscing about those drawings I used to do in lunch. I never got the chance to captivate my classmates with them or for my mini-carrot tormentor to see how well they turned out. But I really do think he would have liked them.