Crimes and misdemeanours

SMALL FACES Gillies Mackinnon (15); Art and violence, darkness and light: the MacKinnon brothers have opened a new window on to the memory of a Glasgow childhood. By Adam Mars-Jones
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The Independent Culture
The Scottish experience is more present on our screens than ever before, if not in its full range then in two extreme forms. Braveheart is all beefy heroics and moral certainties, while Trainspotting offers sardonic self-disgust. Now comes Small Faces, which stakes a claim to a little pocket of the vast terrain between the two.

The setting is Glasgow in the late Sixties. Thirteen-year-old Lex (Iain Robertson) shares a room with his two brothers, one an art student, the other a member of a local "team" (gang). The walls are divided between accomplished drawings and football posters. Lex gets hold of a skeleton as a present for the artist brother, Alan, but hides it under a bed away from the other one, Bobby, who's a bit simple and sometimes gets nightmares.

In the construction of their plot it sometimes seems that the screenwriters, Gillies and Billy MacKinnon (Gillies also directed), are trying to combine Glasgow's two reputations: its long-standing association with violence and the more recent image as a city of culture. When Lex has his hand beaten in class, the moment is bound to recall Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, except that there are far too many artists in the film. Apart from Lex, whose caricatural map of Glasgow is the first thing we see, and brother Alan (Joseph McFadden), there's also Fabio, who represents a softer way of approaching life. Fabio looks out of the window fondly at his father in the garden, who's wrapping his vines against the frost after 15 years without a grape, and says that in Italy grown men hug each other in the street. To which Lex replies, "Yecch!"

Even the gang members have a certain cultural edge. Sloan, the leader of Bobby's gang, the Glen, takes a look at Alan's portrait of his mother and remarks, "You've been looking at Egon Schiele", while Malky Johnson offers a monologue on the requirements for gang membership ("Do you think you can be mental?").

Art and crime combine in one sequence, where Lex helps the Glen break into an art gallery. They're not out to steal anything, just the opposite. Sloan poses by torchlight while Alan draws him, pencilling him in to join the heads in an existing group portrait. Pick up the pencil shavings, a quick spray of varnish, and they're off. The director goes in for a slightly opaque bit of montage here, intercutting the gang running across the checkerboard floor of the gallery with (as it were) reaction shots of the paintings.

For their script the MacKinnon brothers have drawn on their teenage years, but have also come up with a bona fide family tragedy plot. The skeleton under the bed is only one dark hint, another is the prevalence of blood red in the decor, even in the stained glass of the front door to the family flat. At Hogmanay, early on in the film, the boys' mother (Clare Higgins, who is excellent) sings a prophetically mournful Gaelic song against a fringed red velvet lampshade.

The coming-of-age story doesn't mesh all that well with the implacability of tragedy. The lighter elements seem rather random, and one character - Uncle Andrew, back from America - doesn't really belong, and not only because the (Irish) actor, Ian McElhinney, can't manage the complexity of so layered an accent, American on top of Glaswegian. Some of the period detail is exact: beds at 92s 11d in a department store; Sixties interiors plausibly full of Fifties tat; the gangs, though, are given infallible taste in clothes, picking their way through a dodgy period with an eye for what the Nineties will go for. Of course it's much easier to admit that you used to hang out with a rough crowd than to own up to wearing some naff outfits in the process.

At the end of the film, Lex feels responsible for everything. This is a classic adolescent feeling, but in Lex's case it's hardly a phase. He really is responsible for a death, first by firing an air pistol and starting a feud between the Tongs and the Glen, and then by giving Malky Johnson information about where to find someone Lex hates. Nothing can be the same again, and the tone of a coming-of-age story (best of times, worst of times) can't really accommodate something irreversible.

Small Faces is Lex's story, yet it is also Alan's, perhaps because two brothers were mining their memories for the script. Alan starts a relationship with Joanne (Laura Fraser), who seems to have more connections with the Tongs than is altogether healthy - she wears four rings which were given to her by different Tong sub-factions. Since we don't see Joanne primarily through Lex's eyes, we have to make up our own minds about her. As the sky above the tenements darkens with plot, it seems likely that she is a femme fatale despatched by the Tongs to make leading Glens vulnerable, and this hypothesis is confirmed when she exposes Bobby to danger, having helpfully disarmed him in advance. Yet the later development of the character seems to contradict this, making her a free agent who isn't acting for anyone else. The result, perhaps unintended, is that she seems amoral, and as the only young woman with a part to play in the story, seems less like a person than a distillation of young men's hopes and fears.

The Glasgow of Small Faces is sometimes visually nostalgic, as when golden light filters through the massed jars in a coffee shop window. It is also explicitly a destructive environment: near the end of the film MacKinnon includes a montage that is a sort of roll call of casualties, including Joanne's grandmother being taken to a nursing home, and gentle Fabio in a hospital bed after being beaten up. Certainly Lex's family is prey to any number of characteristic dysfunctions: brutal dad, now dead, melancholy unstable mother, general inability to communicate.

More vivid than any of this is the occasional image of a harsh beauty or an unexpected softness. The tower blocks of Tong Land reflected in perversely pristine puddles, sparkling in the sunlight. Young people queuing by daylight to get into a nightclub, by daylight presumably because of the lateness of the northern sunset in high summer. It's so light that when Lex does as he's been told by the Glen, and opens a window in the lavatory to let them in, he sees an old man still rolling the lawn of a bowling green. It's the wrong window - the wrong window but a wonderful sight.

n On release from tomorrow