directed by Stephen Frears
(Lions Gate, 2000)

Young Liam Sullivan has a speech impediment that makes it nearly impossible for him to say words starting with the letter s. Unfortunately, it's no problem for his teacher or the parish priest, both of whom are consumed with the notion that Liam is consumed with their favorite s word, sin. And little wonder: Liam (Anthony Borrows) is preparing for his first holy communion, and Mrs. Abernathy (Anne Reid) and Father Ryan (Russell Dixon) -- a.k.a. the tag-team teachers from hell -- are doing their damnedest to see that little Liam avoids damnation.

But that won't be easy, due to both internal and external factors.

Internal factors include Liam's curiosity, especially when paintings of nudes don't square with what he sees when his mother leaves the bathroom door unlocked.

External factors are considerably more complex. They begin with the fact Liam is growing up Irish Catholic in Protestant English Liverpool in 1930, a time when shipyards are closing and immigrants are despised for bringing down wages. Liam's father (Ian Hart) is soon out on the street and swept up by one misguided hate group after another.

Consequently, the family's only source of steady income is Liam's sister Teresa (Megan Burns), who takes a job as maid and housekeeper for a wealthy Jewish family -- much to the dismay of her father, who by the film's end has become a contributing member of the British Union of Fascists.

So, Liam is a multifaceted film, a heart-warming story of a young boy tackling one of his first great rites of passage and a cold hard look at the desperate measures wage earners were driven to during the Great Depression.

Director Stephen Frears (High Fidelity) details his complex collage with a pastiche of powerful images: the locked gates of the shipyard, the men standing around the streets smoking hand-rolled cigarettes for lack of anything else to do, the burned-out wreckage of the neighborhood pawn shop -- the last place out-of-work laborers could raise a few coins to pay the rent or put food on the table. And who could miss the visual irony of the same police who broke up a labor rally standing guard while Union of Fascist speakers have their say?

But even Molotov cocktails can't stop people from being good to one another -- as Liam proves by the film's end -- or absurdly funny, as Mrs. Abernathy comes across in her dramatic warning to her first-time communicants not to eat breakfast on that most important of all days. "We don't want the body of Christ sloshing around with pieces of toast," she intones. And who could argue with that?

Granted, Liam has its shortcomings. Its short running time (90 minutes) means much action gets compressed into very little space, making Mr. Sullivan's drift toward bigotry and extremism occur too quickly with too little context. And the tightly cropped outdoor shots suggest a budget that didn't allow the film the epic scope it needs to flesh out its place in history.

But let's not quibble. Liam is a small film that says great things, and its last image is guaranteed to make a lasting impression. It's the anti-blockbuster, a most worthy antidote for cinema buffs suffering from those summer-film blues.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 30 April 2005

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