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D: Rob Brown / 79m

Cast: Roger Jean Nsengiyumva, Rachael Stirling, Rosie Day, Fady Elsayed, Sam Spruell, Alexis Zegerman, Christopher Simpson, Deon Lee-Williams

Despite having escaped his life as a child soldier in Congo, and having been adopted by Laura (Stirling), fifteen year old Jumah (Nsengiyumva) is finding it difficult to adapt fully to his new, British life. He’s only been at his latest school for three weeks, and already he’s in trouble for headbutting one of the other students. He has a friend, Alex (Lee-Williams), and a potential girlfriend in Chloe (Day), but otherwise he keeps himself to himself. He wants to be a barber, but lacks the self-confidence to pursue his ambition. When he and Alex witness another student, Josh (Elsayed), commit a violent crime, it causes a rift between them, and brings local drug dealer Liam (Spruell) into Jumah’s life. As he struggles to maintain an equilibrium that is already difficult to achieve, Jumah’s relationship with Chloe begins to suffer just at the point where it becomes more serious, and Liam becomes a more and more threatening presence. His relationship with Laura becomes strained as well, and it all leads to Jumah making a fateful decision that could have dire consequences for all concerned…

The feature debut of award-winning shorts director Rob Brown, Sixteen is a bold piece of movie making that isn’t afraid to paint a dour portrait of average inner city life, and its effect on someone trying to leave behind a terrible past and adjust to better surroundings. What makes this so effective is the performance of Nsengiyumva, who himself escaped from Rwanda during the Nineties, and whose blank expressions coupled with a haunting gaze reveal the pain and anger Jumah is trying so desperately to put behind him. Dominating every scene he’s in, he’s a tightly wound force of nature, mature beyond his years in many ways but also still a child trying to make sense of the new world around him. When he’s first confronted by Liam, Liam expresses veiled concerns regarding what Jumah has seen that would normally intimidate any other teenager, but Jumah is unfazed and unimpressed. And when Liam has finished, Jumah dismisses him with a simple, “I’ve met men like you before.” This is the kind of adversarial relationship he has no trouble with. If only the same could be said of his budding romance with Chloe, a relationship that comes close to foundering completely because Jumah can’t express himself half as well.

Brown, who also wrote the script, arranges his characters against a backdrop of urban misfortune that highlights the daily struggles they all face, whether it’s Jumah’s faltering attempts at social integration, Laura’s working long hours to support them both (her husband left her because he couldn’t deal with Jumah’s behaviour), Chloe’s own need to be wanted, or Josh’s damaged aspirations. Brown doesn’t make it easy for any of them, but it’s through these struggles that he manages to create characters who feel real and sharply defined. Also, Brown doesn’t let the material descend into melodrama, keeping the action credible throughout, even when Jumah decides that his previous life of violence is the only way to solve his troubles. By doing this, Brown ensures an even tone and a steady pace that suits the narrative and which is further enhanced by Barry Moen’s precise editing. Beneath all the pessimism though, there is a message of hope, that a person’s life can change, even if their life till now has been terrifying and horrible. It’s a message that is best encapsulated by the example of its star’s own life, and which goes a long way to making this a movie with a tremendous emotional charge.

Rating: 8/10 – with a bravura performance from its lead, Sixteen isn’t the coming of age tale that it appears to be, but is instead a coming to terms tale that doesn’t soft peddle any easy answers for the tough questions it poses; affecting and mature movie making from a confident and instinctive director, it’s a movie that never gives up on its main character, and never opts for being simplistic.