Kes (1969)

2 07 2011

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Ken Loach’s Family Life but from what I remember, it had the same qualities as this. I respect Loach for being a socially conscious filmmaker, but he seriously seems better when he tries to shield himself from getting too preachy. Considering how early this film came in his career, it’s pretty startling. Although the main character is whipped around and mistreated in a way that paints the scene as pretty much hopeless (Casper’s mother says as much herself) the film manages to redeem itself by being a really tender depiction of teenage angst and lower class unrest. I guess this was the balance Loach has always intended to achieve, but from what I’ve seen, this is the greatest representation of that.

Like all of these British social realist films, Kes is downbeat, if not miserable. Andrea Arnold’s recent Fish Tank was an excellent reprisal of this sort of movie, albeit one with a lot more poetic flourishes than Loach or even Mike Leigh. The situations are so dire that they almost force you to connect to the protagonist. In this particular case, it’s pretty hard not to relate with a bullied teenage boy anyway so there’s less of a sense of martyrdom, as would be the case with any of Mizoguchi’s otherwise great tragedies. The film feels pragmatic even when the viewer is forced to sit through sequences that do nothing but further cement Casper’s standing as something of a geek. It would get tiresome if his way of dealing with the situations wasn’t so fascinating. He manages to be both remarkably mature and extremely childish.

I very often discredit movies of this nature for being too downbeat and trying too hard to be real. The remedy to this, at least from a textbook standpoint, is “comic relief” which often carries a negative connotation with it. I don’t think it should especially when the film is as bleak as this one. Thankfully, Loach interjects an extremely amusing bit in which the PE teacher attempts to live out his dream of football glory with his students. Loach even throws in a scoreboard text, further affirming the pathetic nature of the teacher’s delusions. Casper himself has some antics that do call to a mind something like Gummo or George Washington, albeit done under a much more somber tone. This is kind of off-topic, but the amount of running and jumping Casper does is enough to make someone think he’d make a half-decent hurdler.

While Casper himself exhausts himself physically, the film begins to exhaust itself with depictions of his misfortunes. The brightest, perhaps happiest moment in the film occurs toward the end when Casper’s English teacher takes an interest in him and Kes and even  lets the boy explain himself. It’s a touching couple of minutes, because it hints that the character could be finding something of a father figure but that’s too optimistic. In reality, people don’t suddenly become a huge part of your life through some conversations. It would be schmaltzy for such a thing to happen, but the fact that the relationship never comes to fruition is still heartbreaking.

The film’s finale essentially adds insult to the previously mentioned injury, but the way it ends somehow doesn’t make things completely hopeless. Sure, there’s nothing really positive at all, but the simple fade to black suggests that things could be worse. Casper has basically lost his first great passion in life, and he may never be able to revive it. While this is personally frustrating and heartbreaking, he is still young. His conditions are impossibly harsh but his existence continues. On the other hand, it might become an issue of whether or not he wants to exist anymore or not. Kes is the right amount of sadness for my liking, it is brutal but the tragedy is never escalated as anything more, just observed.

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