Movie Review: Sixteen (2013)
Director: Rob Brown
Cast: Roger Jean Nsengiyumva, Rachael Stirling, Rosie Day
Synopsis: A former African child soldier struggles to adapt to life on a London housing estate.
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Jumah (Roger Jean Nsengiyumva) is a typical fifteen-year-old kid in many ways. He likes to watch TV, kick a ball about with his mate, and steal kisses from his new girlfriend in the gym during school lunch break. And, like many teenagers, he doesn’t say a lot when adults are around. But Jumah’s protracted silences are down to an innate mistrust of those around him, and of himself. He was once a child soldier in an unspecified African country ravaged by civil war, and has witnessed – and, in all probability, perpetrated – the kind of atrocities that leave indelible scars. He keeps it bottled up, but every now and then the rage rises to the surface in violent outbursts that have seen him kicked out of a number of schools. Now, as he approaches his sixteenth birthday, his adoptive mother (Rachel Stirling), the nurse who brought him back from Africa, worries that another outburst will result in his expulsion. But the past has a way of catching up with you – particularly in movies – and when Jumah witnesses one of his classmates fatally stab an old man in an underpass he finds himself plunged back into a world of violence and retribution.
Moody and brooding, Sixteen is the kind of earnest, well-meaning film that gets nominated for awards, but which no one ever sees. As a study of the tentative negotiation of an alien world by a psychologically frail boy as he approaches one of the most important phases of his young life, it delivers some terrific results thanks largely to a finely-tuned performance from young Roger Jean Nsengiyumva) whose lugubrious, heavy-lidded features provide the perfect canvas for Jumah’s troubled soul. Although he’s given few lines to speak, Nsengiyumva is never anything less than entirely convincing in a demanding part upon which the success of the film largely depends.
But while writer/director Rob Brown might have a handle on the inner emotions of his young protagonist, all the positive vibes about Sixteen raised by his sensitive and sympathetic portrayal of Jumah are counterbalanced by his plot deficiencies, most of which revolve around the campaign of intimidation waged by Liam (Sam Spruell), the drug dealer for whom Jumah’s schoolmate was working when he stabbed the old man, to stop Jumah from talking about what he saw. Supposed to be a ruthless hard man, Liam’s ineffectual treatment of Jumah never comes close to the level of intimidation necessary, and he quickly resorts to tactics which are virtually guaranteed to attract the attention of the police. In addition to this, the timeframe in which the plot unfolds never quite gels in the way that it should, and while Jumah’s inability to communicate his feelings, is supposed to be a key part of his personality, it makes for a hugely frustrating viewing experience at times.
(Reviewed 10th August 2016)