Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.
When we first meet Leon, he’s an average, if suspiciously sweet and well-adjusted, young boy: he adores his baby brother, loves chocolate, plays energetically with his toy soldiers. His mother is heartbroken from an unfortunate love affair. She’s also unreliable and heavily medicated; Leon, as a result, is growing up much too soon. When his mother takes an overdose of pain medication – the extended sequence of her lying unconscious in bed, and Leon’s desperate attempts at adulting, is harrowing – the brothers are split up. His brother, a light-skinned baby, is immediately adopted; Leon, because of his skin colour in 1980s Birmingham, has a much rockier path ahead.
The first forty minutes of My Name Is Leon is almost relentless tragedy, with close-ups of Leon and his infant brother in distress that move beyond melodrama, and feel almost punishing. The film finds its feet, and some lightness and joy, when Leon is allowed a certain amount of agency in the form of a bicycle that takes him to an allotment, and a new father-figure in the form of Tufty Burrows (Malachi Kirby). Tufty’s frustration at the racist discrimination he and his friends experience at the hands of the police is seen through Leon’s eyes.
A large and unshakeable problem with My Name Is Leon is that Leon’s viewpoint doesn’t always convince. Has he not experienced any racism until this point? In this case, ten is almost too old to be awoken to the cruelty of the world. It certainly seems like something his mother, unfit but with a deep love for him, would have prepared him for. A child’s point of view is a delicate balancing act in film; one slip and it becomes knowing, cloying. My Name Is Leon doesn’t necessarily avoid these obvious pitfalls, with its stagey protest, neat avoidance of ugly violence and sugary ending. In a possible rarity for this modern age, it might have benefited from being a four-part drama rather than a film; it is somewhat rushed, packed full of plot and without the delicate characterisation I’m sure Kit de Waal’s novel provided.
That aside, Cole Martin provides a star-making turn as Leon: astute and sensitive, full of energy and force. His connection with his foster mother Maureen (an always reliable Monica Dolan) and her fiercer sister Sylvia (Olivia Williams) is the emotional high point of My Name Is Leon. The film is bolstered by lovely performances, and it has a deep kindness at its core. A tear-jerker, but don’t expect to be left with anything meaty to think about.
► My Name Is Leon is available to view on BBC iPlayer now.