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New Release Review - Sixteen

A former child soldier struggles to adapt to his new life in London.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Rob Brown

Starring: Roger Jean Nsengiyumva, Rachael Stirling, Rosie Day



On the cusp of his sixteenth birthday, African refugee Jumah (Roger Jean Nsengiyumva) is already troubled. An ex-child soldier, recently brought to London and adopted by aid worker Laura (Rachel Stirling), he bears the scars, both physical and mental, of an ordeal beyond most of our experiences. Nevertheless, Jumah is doing his best to cope with his violent past: he has a cute relationship developing with Chloe (Rosie Day) and harbours a dream to be a hairdresser. However, wandering home one night, via one of those shadowy subways which are notoriously dangerous in this sort of urban drama, Jumah and his pal Josh (Fady Elsayed) are party to a brutal murder. The boys witness Alex (Deon Williams), a lad from their school, stab an elderly landlord, upon orders from a villainous small time drug dealer, Liam (Sam Spruell). In Rob Brown’s auspicious debut feature, Sixteen, violence simmers beneath the grey surfaces of its urban setting, and the scoured skin of its protagonist. The bloodshed that Jumah had hoped he had escaped from would have seemed to have found him again.
As a witness to this crime, Jumah is now placed in jeopardy. Through the school day, coerced by Liam, Alex intimidates Jumah, and on the estate, Liam threatens his family. Jumah’s own moral duty encourages him to go to the police, but this could in itself spell fatal ramifications for his mother and/or girlfriend. All the while, Jumah is attempting to steer his own path, adjusting to his relationship with Chloe, and facing up to the limited opportunities offered by his future.
Ironically, we never feel as if Jumah is in physical danger at the hands of the gang; what we fear is what he may do to them, and the consequences of such rash actions for Jumah. The film’s anti-violence tension is drawn from Jumah’s ferocious capabilities and inability to control them, the question of whether Jumah’s broken past will ultimately ruin his future too. In this sense, Sixteen is partly about the typical burdens and expectations of adolescence, albeit writ large. Under the most everyday of circumstances, manifest pressures are placed upon teenagers; in school, with friends, with family; each social situation requiring significant adjustment, a demand to adapt to the given circumstance; to impress your mates, to keep your parents happy, to make the grade in school. This common experience is dramatically heightened in Sixteen, as Jumah is too caught between what is expected of him and what he wants to do; his aspirations to be a hairdresser receives outright mockery from his peers, and condescending giggles from the women in his night class. We see Jumah’s hair trigger temper flare up in these moments, but Brown, crucially, allows us to see the boy’s pain and frustration too. Nsengiyumva is undeniable; his Jumah is brought to vivid life with an understated, potent performance, his deep, soulful eyes communicating sorrow, frustration and a reluctant potential for violence. As we see Jumah attempt to navigate his school day, his friendship group, his tiny family and threats from lowlife, Brown’s film is gripping, tense and assured. There is a real sense of Jumah trying to overcome a past and present that seems insurmountable; his anxiety is tangible, right there on the surface.
Deeply emotive, Sixteen is never manipulative. The film making is painstaking, composed of shots that are thoughtful and expressive. For example, midway through the film, there is a technically complex tracking shot that follows Jumah as he walks through the school corridor, and, although elaborate, the technique never brings attention to itself, the shot simply glides along, drawing us further into Jumah’s day and experience. The eventual love scene between Chloe and Jumah is heartbreakingly delicate, wherein Jumah first styles Chloe’s hair to perfection, but is then too embarrassed to take his top off for intimacy, lest he reveal the thick scars that mark his torso. We wonder if he will ever live a life that is fulfilling, and our minds wander to the reality of the real life Jumahs, who bear the genuine weight of such terror and exploitation.
Sixteen would seem to take place within the same glum council estate that other Brit urban dramas such as Bullet Boy, Kidulthood and Top Boy are set. There is the same sense of municipal degradation, of threat and violence, and also, an acute yearning to escape. However, Sixteen offers something more than a grim social awareness; amongst the gloomy prospects of the modern urban experience, within its depiction of the false honour of gang lore, Sixteen is a testament to endurance, courage and redemption.




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