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Looks and Smiles
Loach went from studying law at Oxford to creating documentaries, then fiction features, about the plight of those falling through society's cracks. His narrative films are highwater marks in social(ist) realism. They could pass for documentaries themselves, as they utilize nonprofessional actors and a vérité directing style that eschews melodramatic closeups in favor of wide shots and eliminates dramatic editing flourishes and nondiegetic music (i.e., music that the characters don't hear). Background performers occasionally look at the camera, as civilians would at a documentary camera in their midst. In such an atmosphere, the slightest glimpses of emotion pack a wallop.
Loach's narrative breakthrough was 1967's "Poor Cow," and was followed the 1969 masterpiece "Kes," about a boy and his falcon; after a more fallow stretch in the 1970s and '80s, he returned in the '90s with more widely seen and praised dramas like "Hidden Agenda," "Riff-Raff," "Raining Stones" and "Ladybird, Ladybird." But that interim dry spell had its moments, including "Looks and Smiles" (written by Barry Hines), which played at the 1981 New York Film Festival and then disappeared. The new Image Entertainment DVD marks the film's U.S. homevideo debut, and while mainstream moviegoers won't notice it, fans of Loach and British cinema will eat it up.
Bleak is the word for this study of an unemployed guy in the northern industrial city of Sheffield, where jobs are as rare as sunshine. Mick (Graham Green) is 17, done with school and facing a choice of joining the Army (and mostly likely being sent to Northern Ireland) or remaining on the dole. His best pal, Alan (Tony Pitts), has opted for the guaranteed paycheck that comes with military service, while Mick pays periodic futile visits to an employment office.
One night at a disco, Mick meets Karen (Carolyn Nicholson), a shoe salesgirl, and they begin a relationship based on mutual desperation (her beloved father moved out a year or so ago, and her mother is seeing someone who can never replace him). The kids fight, break up and get back together, but a row with her mother leads Karen to move out with no place to go. She and Mick hop on his motorcycle and head down to Bristol in search of Karen's dad (Arthur Davies). They find him, but to Karen's dismay, he is barely employed, has a baby boy with another woman -- and has no room for Karen.
Loach provides no nice resolution to the story, but leaves us with the impression that if working people's lives are ever going to improve, it will take fundamental and overwhelming change to the socioeconomic structure.
Amid all the seeming nonaction in the movie, heartbreaking moments slip in: Mick roused from bed by his mother and ordered to go look for a job, saying wearily, "That's all I do every day"; Karen, realizing she can't stay with her sympathetic father, simply walking up to him and resting her head on his chest as he stands cradling his infant; Mick and Alan repeatedly being scolded by adults in town for being layabouts when they'd like nothing better than to work; the concluding freeze frame of Mick, a direct homage to Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" -- and reaffirmation that it is the young who are most often the victims of The System.
Image Entertainment's DVD of "Looks and Smiles" presents the film in its original full-frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which is appropriate since nothing about this movie says "widescreen." The fine, somewhat washed-out black-and-white cinematography by Chris Menges ("The Killing Fields," "Notes on a Scandal") has been well-transferred to disc. The Dolby Digital mono sound is fine, but, as often with Loach, the nonpro actors speak in authentic regional accents, and you'll definitely need to turn on the crisp yellow English subtitles. Hearing these Yorkshire voices and reading the "translation" will be an education in itself for non-Brits. The disc has a full-motion main menu, offering two options: Play and Scene Selections (there are 15 chapters). No extras whatsoever: spare, like the movie.
Fans of serious British cinema and, in particular, the unique and unflinching work of Ken Loach, will want this rarity on their DVD shelves. The movie, about an unemployed teen and his equally futureless girlfriend, is as far from feel-good as can be, but therein lies the beauty; the grace notes are there for those attuned enough to catch them. Image's DVD is a film-only production, but for believers, it is enough.