Director: Rob Brown
Major Players: Roger Jean Nsengiyumva, Rachel Stirling, Rosie Day
Out Of Five: 4
One of the – admittedly many – pleasures of being a film critic is discovering new talent, especially when it’s home grown. The latest name on my list is British director, Rob Brown, hitherto known for shorts and who now ventures into feature films with his first offering, Sixteen.
This was originally screened at the London Film Festival in 2013, so it’s taken nearly 18 months to get a national release. Sadly, it’s a limited one, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed for that to be extended or for it to be available online PDQ – or preferably both. Because it’s a film that deserves to be seen.
Teenager Jumah (Roger Jean Nsengiyumva) lives in a tower block in Bromley with his adoptive mother (Rachel Stirling). His sixteenth birthday is approaching and he’s looking forward to leaving school and pursuing his dream of becoming a barber. But all that optimism flies out of the window when he witnesses a murder, which triggers memories of his past. He’s intimidated by the people responsible and soon finds himself struggling to decide whether he should do the right thing or keep quiet to protect the people he cares about.
His past is a shocking one and only becomes apparent as the film unravels his story. At first, he just appears to have a short fuse – not that unusual among teenagers. But there’s more. He’s contemptuous of the other boys at school, even his best friend, telling him he’s “just a kid.” And he won’t let his girlfriend touch or see his chest, because there are jagged letters carved on his pecs. That’s because he’s a former child soldier from The Congo, so he’s seen and experienced far more of life than his classmates – and certainly more than anybody of his tender years should have to go through.
It explains a lot about him. His natural intelligence has been warped into suspicion and he can sniff a wrong ‘un at fifty paces. He walks around with his head down, looking like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and rarely smiles. What weighs him down are those memories, although we never get to see them. A glimpse or two would have helped but we’re left to imagine them and rely on Nsengiyumva’s performance to paint those images for us. And he’s more than up to the job, with his remarkably expressive face and tremendous screen presence. He’s an old head on young shoulders – all because of what he’s seen and done – and that makes him look incongruous in his school uniform. He’s still a sixteen year old, after all.
His relationship with his adoptive mother, Laura, is also beautifully done. She’s played by the only familiar face in the cast, Rachel Stirling, and there’s a genuinely close bond between the two. She’s made huge sacrifices to bring Jumah to this country from The Congo and then adopt him. She even gave up her relationship and, when his behaviour becomes violent, she not only finds him difficult to understand, but starts to doubt whether she made the right decision.
Jumah, of course, has swopped the jungle of The Congo for the urban jungle of a housing estate, one that’s painted in subdued lighting: the tunnels, corridors, corners are all dark and gloomy, creating a menace all of their own. Diminishing light is also used to bookend each section of the narrative and proves to be more effective than captions on the screen.
Brown has compressed his story into just over 80 minutes, which means that the story is tight and avoids the distractions of too many sub-plots or characters. It gives the film an urgency, an immediacy and the emotions on show, especially Jumah’s, are genuinely raw at times. Billed as a thriller, in all honesty, it doesn’t have enough in the way of suspense to live up to the label, but it’s certainly effective as a study of the after-effects of war on a young man. Sadly, the ending is a touch too pat, especially given the nature of the story, although it’s almost impossible not to feel a sense of relief that Jumah is starting to break free of his former life.
Sixteen as an age is supposed to be a turning point, but Sixteen the film shows us something much more fundamental. As a child soldier, Jumah probably never thought he’d make it to that birthday. But he’s a survivor and the fact that we don’t see anything in the way of a celebration hardly matters. That he’s made it in the first place is celebration enough.
Sixteen is currently on limited release.