It’s hard not to be cynical about a white middle class film director setting his debut feature in an urban landscape with a troubled black lead. All the hallmarks of the well-trodden urban street genre are apparent as Rob Brown’s Sixteen begins – the haloing light through the council estate windows, knife crime and a seemingly narrow exploration of social decay in inner city London.
However, Jumah is a sixteen year old with an unconventional history of violence, a former Congolese child soldier who has been given a second chance in the UK. Thus the clichés of this timeworn British genre dissipate to provide a film with a plot that twists around the choices Jumah makes when he is again confronted with violence.
Although it is not quite the thriller that it is marketed to be, Sixteen delivers something unexpected – a rights of passage story that seems both truthful and touching. The performances are measured and mesmerising. Roger Jean Nsengiyumva’s Jumah is as sympathetic as he is frustrating.
‘I have met men like you before’ he calmly and bravely tells Sam Purells’ sociopathic drug dealer. However, this quietly contained rage is released when any person threatens his beloved adoptive mother Laura; such sharp switches in action all add weight to the brooding staring silences. Rachael Stirling’s Laura is the calm collected and kind counterpart to the usually volatile and downtrodden estate mum. Whilst Jumah’s typically teenage girlfriend (played with gorgeous understatement by Rosie Day) allows us to see Jumah through the fresh eyes of teenage adoration.
Whilst debut features can sometimes lack the punch of a more experienced hand it is the tonal stagnancy of Sixteen that makes it an uneasy but riveting watch. The long-drawn-out slowness reflects the pathos in everyday life whilst the script is sharp, funny and truthful. With this very human debut feature Rob Brown marks himself out as a filmmaker to watch.