Gilliies MacKinnon's 1996 film is a beautifully shot, tragic tale set in 1968 gangland Glasgow and, for me, is one of best British films of the 1990s, ranking alongside Trainspotting (with which it has a number of superficial similarities), Secrets and Lies, Wonderland, My Name Is Joe and Topsy Turvy. However, whilst the film is (largely) centred on gang culture, it is really more of a 'coming of age' drama, with perhaps more similarities to Ken Loach's masterpiece Kes. Sadly, it is a film that has never received the critical (or commercial) acclaim it really deserves.
Small Faces tells the story of the three brothers MacLean. The film is part-narrated by 13-year old Lex (brilliantly played by newcomer Iain Robertson, and looking like a very youthful Pete Townshend) who, together with brothers Alan (Joseph McFadden) - who, perhaps surprisingly for a Gorbals upbringing, has artistic ambitions - and Bobby (Steven Duffy) - the dysfunctional, dyslexic and increasingly psychotic black sheep of the family - is struggling to come to terms with the growing pains of adolescence. The brothers' upbringing is further challenged by the fact that the responsibility has fallen solely on the shoulders of their mother Lorna (superbly played by Clare Higgins) since the death of their father. Torn between the artistic ambitions of Alan, and Bobby's involvement with local gang, the Glens - fierce rivals of the Tongs - Lex becomes ensnared in an emotional maelstrom of divided loves and loyalties.
MacKinnon sets his film in the working class, high-rise housing estates (concrete jungles) of 1960s Glasgow, and has created a totally authentic atmosphere of youth angst, deprivation and gang rivalry, which has not been equalled since in British film (although Peter Mullan's 2010 film NEDS gets very close). However, in addition to showing the grim reality of violent gang conflict, MacKinnon also manages to communicate, in a quite beautiful and poignant manner, the more creative aspirations of his protagonists, in the process making Small Faces an original gem of a film. Indeed, despite Lex's toying with adult preoccupations, he manages to retain his youthful outlook on life - towards the end of the film there is a brilliant scene of him singing along at a children's cinema matinee, and he concludes the film with the reassuring 'I dreamt I was a man - luckily when I woke up I was still a boy'.
All three of the actors playing the MacLean brothers deliver brilliant, and each very different, performances. In fact, for me, Iain Robertson delivers the best portrayal of teenage angst since the aforementioned Kes, which featured David Bradley in the equivalent role. Acting honours also go to Clare Higgins as the mother Lorna, Garry Sweeney as Charlie Sloane (leader of the Glens), Laura Fraser (as Joanne, 'habitual girlfriend' and infatuation of many of the protagonists! and reminiscent in this film of Christina Ricci at her The Ice Storm and Buffalo '66 best) and Kevin McKidd (as Malky Mackay, leader of the Tongs). It is also worth noting these latter two actors - Fraser and McKidd - were reunited 7 years later in Richard Jobson's excellent film debut 16 Years Of Alcohol, which dealt with a similar subject matter as Small Faces.
It is also sad to note that none of the promising acting talent that appeared in Small Faces has gone on to achieve significant artistic or commercial cinematic success. Perhaps the main exception to this is Kevin McKidd, who subsequently appeared in Mike Leigh's brilliant Topsy Turvy and, as noted above, 16 Years Of Alcohol, but has since focused on US-based opportunities, including such nonsense as the TV production Rome.
Final mention goes to the impressive film soundtrack which features some great music from the era, including The Spencer Davis Group's Keep On Running and Zager and Evans' In The Year 2525.
A much neglected, classic British film.