‘Soundtrack to Sixteen’ wrings fresh life from a familiar trope
If anyone understands the dynamics of social ostracism, it’s a pair of brainy sisters from London named Shakespeare.
In Soundtrack to Sixteen, writer Anna-Elizabeth Shakespeare and Director Hillary Shakespeare have created a jittery coming-of-age indie film that’s not as original as Sing Street or nearly as funny as The Inbetweeners, but somehow manages to be more moving than either.
SOUNDTRACK TO SIXTEEN ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Hillary Shakespeare
Written by: Anna-Elizabeth Shakespeare
Starring: Scarlett Marshall, James Calloway, Jack Boal, Emily Jayne, Celiya Koster-Brown
Running time: 85 mins
Maisy is a cerebral girl who has never been kissed. She frets over the state of affairs with her best friend as they bury their pet mice and play Paddington, not quite realizing that their quirky hobbies pretty much explain their persistent virginity.
Meanwhile, Ben does much better in the friend department. He’s kind of a dork, but he’s found himself a steady crew of three other dorks, and that makes high school a tolerable experience. Until he begins to realize he just hasn’t got the intellect to become the physics star he had set his sights on.
You can probably see where this is headed.
Maisy and Ben have a couple chance encounters. They’re adorable. They forge a real and meaningful friendship, but even as the attraction builds, neither has the courage or the game to next-level it.
Something that helps elevate this film above its predictable contours is that neither protagonist, especially Maisy, is wholly sympathetic. When Maisy falls out with her first group of friends, her loneliness is painful. But unlike lesser films it’s not entirely the other friends’ fault. She is too sensitive about a fairly minor slight. So she repays her mates by plopping herself down at the popular girls’ table. When they, unsurprisingly, don’t warmly welcome her, it hurts again. There’s a particularly brutal scene in which the four of them are having a sleepover, and the three actual friends are crammed in bed together but won’t make room for Maisy.
It’s excruciating to feel her loneliness and the two young women who made this film clearly understand their subject matter. But as my own almost 16 year old daughter pointed out—even though it came out in 2020, we saw the film make its US premiere at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival this week—the popular crowd really doesn’t owe Maisy anything. They didn’t ask her to join and then dump her; she forced herself upon them and they really don’t know what to make of their strange interloper.
As her friendship with Ben begins to blossom, Maisy again reveals that she’s not quite the one-dimensional sympathetic figure of a formulaic ugly duckling picture.
Even as Ben clearly has developed feelings for her, and on top of her own repeated painful rejections, she feels no compunction about ditching Ben to flirt with Nathan, the long-time object of her desire who is way out of her league.
The filmmakers told Book and Film Globe that they based much of the film on their own experiences. Hillary was quite conscious of the fact that she had not had her own first kiss until age 18, and they shot the film at their own high school, which made the halls redolent with unrequited high school passion. Anna was more like Ben, obsessed with her marks, and pulling all-nighters to prepare for her A-levels.
It’s an utterly delightful indie experience whose shaky camerawork and occasionally questionable editing—Ben’s own all nighter seems to actually take all night—and audiences should expect to see a lot more from these outrageously talented sisters. Whether they quite live up to their august surname remains to be seen. But hell, they can write.