From A Taste of Honey (1961) to Rocks (2019), British cinema has plenty to offer when it comes to films about the young and restless. But of all the nations of the UK, it’s arguably Scotland that has offered the most formal invention and thematic bite – regarding issues of class, wealth gaps and isolation – when it comes to cinematic tales of youth.
Some of Scotland’s greatest filmmakers – Lynne Ramsay and Bill Forsyth among them – got their start with films told from the point of view of troubled kids and gawky teenagers. Directors from further south in the UK, meanwhile, have made some of their best work when journeying north and drawing from young talent.
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While the relatively small pool of Scottish teen films leans towards narratives set in or around Edinburgh and Glasgow, you rarely find one that’s indistinguishable from another thanks to the distinctive imprints of their directors. Delinquency is a common thread, but you’re not going to confuse Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen (2002) with Peter Mullan’s Neds (2010).
The feature debut of writer-director Ninian Doff, horror-comedy Get Duked! (2019), supported by the BFI Film Fund, sees 4 teenage boys on a highlands trek stalked by wealthy aristocrats hunting them for sport. Not just a foul-mouthed riff on The Most Dangerous Game (1932), the film also has much on its mind about class warfare and the bad hand dealt to Generation Z.
To mark its release on 28 August, exclusive to Amazon Prime Video, here are 10 of the best films about Scottish youth. Our focus here is on children and teenagers, so – sorry – no Trainspotting (1996).
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)
Director: Ronald Neame
Maggie Smith won her first Oscar for the title role in this adaptation of Jay Presson Allen’s stage play, itself based on the 1961 novel by Muriel Spark. But while her deceptively inspiring (actually destructive) teacher commands much of the focus, a great deal of the film’s running time is spent on the exploits of her favoured pupils at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in 1930s Edinburgh.
As her protégé-turned-eventual-nemesis (or “assassin”) Sandy, Pamela Franklin is effectively co-lead for the years-jumping narrative, resenting Brodie’s classifications of her personality and likely future, and slipping – in her later teen years – into the bed of Brodie’s artist lover.
My Childhood (1972)
Director: Bill Douglas
Passing away tragically young at 57, Bill Douglas only made 4 feature films (and 2 of them barely feature-length at that), but they’re among the most lyrical, unique and personal visions in British cinema history. His legacy rests most on what’s known as the Bill Douglas trilogy, the 3 short black-and-white films he made from 1972 to 1978, which drew from his own childhood experiences of poverty, isolation and broken family life.
Charting the journey of a boy named Jamie in an impoverished mining town, starting just before the end of the Second World War, the entire trilogy – My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973) and My Way Home (1978) – is unmissable, but the first film is singled out here for setting the template with a bleak but extraordinary debut.
Gregory’s Girl (1980)
Director: Bill Forsyth
Bill Forsyth showcased his skill with teenage actors in crime caper debut That Sinking Feeling (1979). Reuniting much of that cast for his follow-up, most of whom came from the Glasgow Youth Theatre, he created what’s likely the best loved British teen film of the 1980s with Gregory’s Girl. It’s a warm, thoroughly charming tale of an inelegant teenage boy’s romantic yearning; innocent and chaste, even if it opens with Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) and his pals playing peeping tom.
Though full of moments of cute whimsy, Gregory’s Girl avoids excessive sentimentality; its idiosyncrasies never come across as laboured. In interview material on Second Sight’s Blu-ray, Forsyth points to European arthouse cinema of the 1960s as his wheelhouse more than mainstream English-language fare, and there’s a definite display of such influences in some of the film’s low-key surrealist flourishes: from an impromptu changing-room dance number to a running gag with a lost pupil in a penguin costume.
Small Faces (1995)
Director: Gillies MacKinnon
Set in Glasgow in 1968, the alternately brutal and bouncy Small Faces follows 3 brothers caught in the city’s macho gang culture of that time, with the most prominent groups being the Tongs and the Glens. An accidental shooting mishap with the youngest’s air gun sets off a chain of events that will shake their family.
One of director Gillies MacKinnon’s most fascinating storytelling devices comes from how he makes it seem like all of Glasgow revolves around the young protagonists. As teenagers populate the streets, many of them running amok, adults of any kind are rarely seen except briefly in select scenes (eg a bus driver) or as background extras in a café or shop. Parents of supporting characters are referenced but never shown. Sequences with adults are almost entirely confined to those featuring the central trio’s mother (Clare Higgins) in their Govanhill tenement flat, some of which become sing-song family gatherings that bring to mind Terence Davies’ Distant Voices Still Lives (1988).
Director: Lynne Ramsay
A number of the Glasgow and Edinburgh-set films on this list are period pieces set during times of notable transition, for either the city specifically or the country more broadly. Disruptions to the physical environment echo their stories of emotional upheaval. In Lynne Ramsay’s remarkable debut feature, which loosely concerns a poor 12-year-old’s reckoning with his role in an accidental drowning, the specifics of the setting in time and place only further the haze of rigor mortis in the film’s atmosphere.
It’s 1973 and Glasgow is midway through a major redevelopment initiative. Certain sections of the city are to be demolished, with tenants re-housed in new modern estates. But this is all coinciding with a bin workers’ strike that creates an extra health hazard, while families patiently waiting to be sent to new homes are left on the back burner. Rats infest the streets, the air is unbearable, and a local child has died in the nearby canal. Hope might be promised, but it’s rarely felt.
Sweet Sixteen (2002)
Director: Ken Loach
Sweet Sixteen was one of the earliest collaborations between Scottish screenwriter Paul Laverty and director Ken Loach, a partnership that has now yielded 13 features and 2 anthology contributions. This one focuses on Liam (a magnetic Martin Compston in his debut role), a delinquent in Greenock who’s fighting for a better life for his incarcerated mother, Jean (Michelle Coulter). Jean is due to be released in a few months’ time, having served a sentence for a crime actually committed by her drug pusher boyfriend. Trying to raise money to get her a new home, Liam finds himself dangerously out of his depth and seduced into the service of a generous local kingpin.
Although concerning a young man about to turn 16 and intended to reach that age group, the BBFC gave the film an 18 certificate due to its strong language.
Hallam Foe (2007)
Director: David Mackenzie
An eccentric, sexually charged and somewhat Hitchcockian coming-of-age story, this adaptation of a Peter Jinks novel continues the theme of wayward masculinity that has characterised much of director David Mackenzie’s filmography to date, from Young Adam (2003) to Hell or High Water (2016).
17-year-old Hallam Foe (Jamie Bell) is a strange teenager with a proclivity for spying on people. Living on his father’s (Ciarán Hinds) large estate in Peebles in the Scottish Borders region, he’s convinced his mother’s apparent suicide 2 years prior was in fact the work of his stepmother (Claire Forlani). When he’s effectively blackmailed into leaving, he escapes to Edinburgh, but with his funds blocked he’s left to wander the streets and roofs of the city. He becomes oedipally obsessed with Kate (Sophia Myles), who strongly resembles his mother in appearance, and a job in the hotel where she works leads to a thoroughly peculiar romance.
Director: Scott Graham
Scott Graham is one of the UK’s most interesting rising writer-directors thanks to his penchant for narratives based in rural landscapes – or at least relatively isolated Scottish communities – that haven’t had much attention when it comes to screen storytelling. Before Iona (2015) and Run (2019), his bleak breakthrough feature Shell (2012) offered a teenage protagonist who was well and truly isolated from anyone her own age, bar one regular customer encouraging her to escape.
The 17-year-old title character (Chloe Pirrie) lives and works with her emotionally distant father (Joseph Mawle), who is epileptic, at a petrol station and garage on a lonely road in the Highlands. He needs her around due to his condition, though Graham hints at a more transgressive nature to their relationship. Shell savours her brief contact with passing motorists, most of whom tend to comment on the drawbacks of a teenager living this way.
Director: Brian Welsh
Adapted from co-screenwriter Kieran Hurley’s one-man stage show, Beats is a euphoric coming-of-age film set in 1994 in the wake of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act’s impact on British rave culture. Part of the act gave law enforcement power to halt any gatherings of more than 20 people in open-air settings when listening to music “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”.
Two teenage best friends, Johnno and Spanner (the winning Cristian Ortega and Lorn Macdonald), head to an illegal rave being put on as a protest, possibly their final chance to attend one. It also looks to be their last chance for much else as friends, as life seems to be pulling them apart: Johnno’s family is due to move to new housing in faraway suburbs, while Spanner seems stuck with poverty and abuse from his violent brother. Director Brian Welsh has cited Francis Ford Coppola’s teen film Rumble Fish (1983) as an influence on the film’s black-and-white look with sporadic flashes of colour.
Our Ladies (2019)
Director: Michael Caton-Jones
At the time of writing, Our Ladies is currently in release limbo after a spring 2020 theatrical release was delayed due to COVID-19. Alan Warner’s 1998 novel The Sopranos has previously been adapted as the Olivier-winning musical Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour. Writer-director Michael Caton-Jones’ film version doesn’t take cues from the stage show, though it has the spirit of a musical and a couple of showstopping numbers. The style of the late Alan Parker’s The Commitments (1991) is very much in its DNA.
Set in 1996, it captures 24 hours in the lives of a group of Catholic high-schoolers from the Highlands as they venture to Edinburgh for a choir competition – though debauchery is in their sights more than winning. With Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy’s Life (1993) and Letitia Wright in Urban Hymn (2015), Caton-Jones already has proven form with deriving great turns from young talent on the cusp of big breakthroughs, but in Our Ladies he gets electric chemistry from 6 future stars all at once: Tallulah Greive, Marli Siu, Abigail Lawrie, Sally Messham, Rona Morison and Eve Austin.