VOD film review: Sixteen
Mark Harrison | On 03, Aug 2015
Director: Rob Brown
Cast: Roger Jean Nsegiyumva, Rachael Stirling, Rosie Day, Deon Williams and Sam Spruell
Watch Sixteen online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW / Apple TV (iTunes) / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Congolese teenager Jumah, (Roger Jean Nsengiyumva) lives in east London with his doting adoptive mother, Laura (Rachael Stirling). He’s a lad of few words and privately harbours a dream to work as a barber at a local stylist’s shop, learning his craft by practising on Laura and his girlfriend Chloe (Rosie Day). That’s the set-up for Sixteen, a film that quickly gets much darker than it seems on the surface.
Jumah has a traumatic past as a child soldier, which has left him short-tempered and prone to outbursts of violence against his classmates: early on, a sneering shoulder-barge puts one student on the receiving end of a head butt. Matters are only exacerbated when one of Jumah’s classmates (Deon Williams) and a small-time drug dealer (Sam Spruell) learn that he has witnessed a stabbing, and pressure him to keep schtum about the murder.
In his first feature, award-winning shorts director Rob Brown has tackled a very bleak subject matter. Working with a low budget, Brown makes a great virtue of restraint and much of that approach is typified by Nsengiyumva’s nuanced performance.
The Rwandan-born actor, previously seen in Africa United, completely inhabits the role of the tormented Jumah. Even at his most personable, he’s brooding and reticent, much to the frustration of his loved ones. What we do learn of his past comes from the jibes of his adversaries and others around him, while he is more prone to silent reflection over a tattered photograph of his real family than to talk about his feelings.
When he does lose his cool, there aren’t protracted scenes of violence. His signature move (you can call it that because it happens about three times) is to land one crunching blow and then retreat. He directs much more of his rage inwards, which only deepens his emotional turmoil. The most memorable outburst comes after he plucks up the courage to visit a hairdressing seminar, where he is the only male attendee, and your heart really goes out to the poor kid.
Having built up our protagonist to give such a terrific performance, the film follows in his wake. There’s a sparse instrumental score from John Bowen, but in keeping with Jumah’s reluctance to speak out, Brown’s most effective choice is to throw some of the heaviest narrative punches during spells of near-deafening silence. Like some of the best low-budget films, it knows what to leave to our imagination.
There’s a danger that some will be alienated by the distance of our protagonist and certainly, his humanising influences (ably played by Day and Stirling) each take a lot of flak for which they are never properly compensated by anything approaching an apology or remorse. More often than not, Jumah seems either unable or unwilling to find adequate words to express himself, which tends to make you side with the more obviously sympathetic characters.
Coming in at a sinewy 75 minutes without credits, Sixteen doesn’t cloy with sentimentality or shock factor, but instead makes the most of its means, carried through by heartfelt and natural performances from the cast and a script that works out the inherent emotional background of the subject rather than wringing it dry. The result, while not easy to enjoy, makes for a sharp and efficient character study.
Sixteen is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, as part of a £11.99 NOW Cinema Membership subscription – with a 7-day free trial.