British director Ken Loach is an anomaly: a political filmmaker who, during the course of 30-plus years of tumultuous history, has kept the faith. Loach wears his political agenda on his sleeve – right next to an unapologetically bleeding heart – and although he sometimes seems to be preaching hardest to the already converted, his work is strongest when the message is woven into the fabric of the story. That’s the case here.
Set in one of the poorest, roughest neighborhoods of Glasgow, Scotland, My Name is Joe follows recovering alcoholic Joe Kavanagh (Peter Mullan) as his one-day-at-a-time philosophy is put to the test. Screenwriter Paul Laverty is also a human rights lawyer, and he details not just the criminal economy at work in Joe’s neighborhood, but the governmental agencies that oversee the effects of poverty, represented in all their well-meaning earnestness by Sarah Downey (Louise Goodall).
Joe meets Sarah, a health counselor, when she comes to check up on the young son of Liam (David McKay), a former heroin addict-dealer who plays on the ragtag soccer team Joe coaches. Their immediate attraction is palpable, but their situations couldn’t be more different. Sarah is a supremely independent woman, with a tough, standoffish exterior. Although her profession involves servicing the dependent, she herself appears to need no one. Joe is supremely good-natured and gregarious, the picture of enthusiasm. But he’s also quite fragile, having completed barely a year of sobriety after countless blurry years devoted to drinking.
Director Loach applies his usual low-key, naturalistic style to My Name is Joe, even when the film drifts into overly familiar criminal territory, and the dialogue grows more predictable. (The film is subtitled to aid American audiences in deciphering the strong Scottish accents and slang.)
Peter Mullan won a well-deserved Best Actor award at Cannes for the way he inhabits the contradictions of Joe, who believes – perhaps naively – that he has the ability to set his life on a different course. Ken Loach doesn’t offer any easy solutions, but he does embrace Joe’s spirit, which refuses to be overlooked or underestimated.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.