Directed by: #HillaryShakespeare
The ineffable charm of Hillary Shakespeare’s coming-of-age movie is undoubtedly its greatest strength. Brought about by some fine writing, superb central performances and a thumping soundtrack; Soundtrack to Sixteen is bound to elicit a strong emotional response from anyone who grew up in the UK in the last 20-years.
The story centres around two teenagers growing up in London as they prepare for their school exams: Maisy Tennison (Scarlett Marshall) and Ben Maxwell (James Calloway) are two anxiety-ridden misfits, whose main problem in life may very well be themselves.
For Maisy, it's the desire to fit in with the "cool kids" (mostly to get herself noticed by a boy) that leads her to abandon her friends in the pursuit of popularity; sabotaging her private life in the process. For Ben, it's confusion from seeing stupid people (as he puts it) getting better grades on their work than him and the delusion that he's just too clever to fail, that causes him to decide that revising and studying is pointless; causing his school life to suffer.
The characters' reasoning may not be all that logical, but then they are teenagers after all. And it's that sense of unreasoned naivety that is captured so brilliantly in both the writing and the central performances. Characters – for the better part – speak as teenagers should and talk about the things teenagers would. Both Marshall and Calloway's delivery are generally excellent, and the supporting cast contributes positively to the film; no-one ever feels tacked on. Although there are moments where certain lines feel forced, the jokes fall flat or the film loses that naturalistic quality, this is still very impressive for a film whose cast is made up primarily of friends and family of the film-makers.
Thematically the film is a bit of a mixed bag, as it borrows heavily from a range of different influences. In the introductory scenes alone – a brilliant character establishing sequence, by the way – we have obvious references to both Richard Curtis written movies (Love Actually) and Nora Ephron directed pieces (You've Got Mail). At times this can make the film feel a little disjointed, particularly during the funnier scenes, as it struggles to find a good comedic balance. Mostly, however, it works really well. The signature plot devices borrowed from Curtis and Ephron movies are implemented really well here; with Curtis’ inner monologuing being used particularly effectively to highlight how teenagers often knowingly self-sabotage aspects of their lives to satisfy peer pressure.
At its worst, Soundtrack to Sixteen is an entertaining, 83-minute long time killer. But at its best, it's a charmingly optimistic exploration of modern, teenage life and friendship. However, I think what has impressed me the most is how unapologetically and unashamedly British it is: from the highest level of directorial design, to Savage & Spies' wonderful early 2000s inspired soundtrack. And at a time where we have had a plethora of – admittedly brilliant – American coming-of-age films, this is more than a little refreshing.