With such recent releases as The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), and The Spectacular Now (2013), there continues to be no shortage of movies about young people struggling in their adolescence. Be they serious or comedic, the tradition of coming-of-age films has been a mainstay of the cinema for decades, usually on one clear side of this tonal line, as well as distinctly placed on a particular side of sociocultural standing. From Rebel Without a Cause (1955) to John Hughes, this type of film has had its good and its bad, its honest and its contrived, its effective and its insignificant. Falling into all the positive appraisals is Kes, a brilliant yet often overlooked film of this general trend, one that has more heart and genuine emotion than most. Grimy, stark, and unglamorous, with no ostensibly attractive people to speak of, it’s little wonder Kes stands out within this broad generic category, but it’s also why it rises so far above it.
Set in the same sort of worn and weary working-class milieu that served as the background for so many British New Wave features of the 1950s and ’60s, Ken Loach’s 1969 film, released when the cycle was essentially over, differs most notably from these other English features in the age of its protagonist (an angry, very young man) and in his principal cause for distress. Young Billy Casper isn’t primarily concerned with girls, with making a living, with getting through school, or with leaving his ramshackle industrial town. Billy’s reason for worry – and his reason for living – is Kes, the kestrel that he takes in, trains, and befriends. True, in this film there are people like those featured in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) or This Sporting Life (1963), people like Billy’s abusive and hard-living brother, Jud (Freddie Fletcher), and their neglectful mother (Lynne Perrie), but they are on the periphery of this story. This story is about a boy and his bird.
Billy, played astonishingly by David Bradley, a native of the film’s Barnsley, South Yorkshire setting, may, though, one day become one of these people. Early on, we see he is having a tough go of his young life already. Where could things possibly end up at this rate? He has taken on a paper delivery route early before school. He has a bad reputation for stealing; we see him nick milk – he wouldn’t be properly nourished otherwise – and later he pinches a library book. He’s also a less-than-studious pupil in class and a more-than-careless athlete on the field. But Billy’s got personality, and to quote the totally unrelated Pulp Fiction, “personality goes a long way.” This is why we feel Billy’s joy when he discovers Kes and their relationship blooms and their interaction develops. Billy is a likable young boy, and it makes us happy to see him happy, particularly when we see how others are around him, and when we realize that this may indeed be as good as it gets.
Despite Billy’s age (15 or so), and the focus on the relationship between a boy and what is basically his pet (though Billy is quick to deny that Kes is merely a pet), make no mistake, this is not an inspirational children’s movie, nor is it a morality-infused bildungsroman with life lessons to be learned. Kes is a snapshot of a life, no more, no less, and as such, it provides a direct, vivid glimpse of a young boy in a problematic world. His home life is certainly not one to foster advancement or positive reinforcement. Jud spends his evenings drinking and attempting to woo the opposite sex; Billy’s mother pretty much does the same (though she is kind enough to leave Billy some money before going out … for pop and crisps, never mind a real meal). Meanwhile, Billy stays home to read. Later, he is at least able to exact some form of revenge on his beastly brother by taunting him when he comes home in a drunken stupor. The torment doesn’t end there for Billy. He’s ridiculed by the other students at school and is humiliated by the gym teacher. (Interestingly, the soccer-obsessed instructor does seem to be the only other character in the film who also has a true passion for something, even if it sadly reveals him to be playing out an impossible dream.)
Perhaps the scene in which identification with Billy becomes most apparent, where our delight most fully forms from his own enthusiasm, is when he details to his classmates the processes for training Kes. At first, they are apathetic to his ramblings, but spurred on by his English teacher, Mr. Farthing (one of the few kindly figures in the film), Billy proceeds anyway, and his fellow students, like us, can’t help but pay rapt attention. In the standout sequence from what is an altogether stunning performance by Bradley, Billy can’t contain himself. His words run into each other, his train of thought derails by his desperation to properly illustrate how he guides Kes; he gets short of breath and his wild-eyed passion leaves him beaming with pride. Like the stray sheep from the Bible reading during the students’ assembly, the wayward Billy is adrift in this film, with no clear direction and no apparent hope for emerging from his stolid life of routine and predetermined monotony, but perhaps this kestrel will be the guiding shepherd.
This marvelous scene comes about midway through the film. On either side of it, though, mixed with other moments of fleeting happiness, are less optimistic occurrences. It’s a deft balance of contrasts on Loach’s part, the way he oscillates from the despair and melancholy of certain sequences and the times of brightness in others. This balance results in a successful emotional manipulation. Our feelings one way or another wouldn’t be nearly as concentrated without the alternative being right around the corner.
As with other British New Wave features and their palpable sense of place, there is the prominent use of the English landscape in Kes. We again see a disparity, here between the idyllic, pastoral arena where Billy and Kes play and train, and the cacophonous and filthy setting of the “the pit,” the town reeking of its industrial residue. Interiors as much as exteriors appear incessantly cold, damp, and squalid. As this serves to locate the drama and to provide the proper scenic backdrop for the characters’ equally bleak existence and their equally gritty appearances (soiled clothes, grungy hair, greasy faces), it also further emphasizes Billy’s situation. These are the two poles for the boy: on the one hand he has the peaceful freedom of Kes and their surroundings together; on the other is the ceaseless reminder of what perhaps awaits him, and what, it seems, spurs on some of the violence and unhappiness in Billy’s brother and mother.
These two worlds are appropriately distinct and distanced for much of the film. The audience and Billy feel a sense of relief when the setting shifts from places of abuse to places where Billy and Kes are alone. These are moments of respite and innocence, the serenity emphasized by John Cameron’s wistful score. When Mr. Farthing is invited into this personal realm of rare joy, and as he and Billy watch Kes in the cage, we feel that genuine progress may have been made. Similarly, though on the opposite end of the spectrum, when Jud — SPOILER — takes and kills Kes (callously disposing of the bird in a trashcan), we and Billy feel violated by the intrusion. It’s more than just killing Billy’s pride and joy; it’s an affront to a deeper pleasure and emotion – it assaults a way out.
Kes was just Ken Loach’s second feature film, adapted from Barry Hines’s book A Kestrel for a Knave, and it’s a remarkably mature achievement. It’s mature not only in its objective and unsentimental treatment of a flawed boy and his hostile environment, but also in its general cinematic form, with multiple asides and deviations from the primary narrative. The film frequently follows characters other than Billy for a considerable time, but never too much, just enough for Loach to establish Billy’s world and to tell us a little about this region and where these people are coming from. In the end, though, what truly matters are Billy and Kes, this boy and his bird.