16 year olds Maisy and Ben struggle with friendships and relationships while their upcoming AS levels loom over them
It’s not true that you don’t remember your school exam results – I can reel off every single grade of mine, and that was so long ago they were called <dusts off parchment certificate illuminated by a long-dead monk> O’levels.
It is true that they don’t really matter except to get you to your next stage in education or work.
It’s also true that they can continue looming over you long after you take them. That feeling of dread as the days got longer and warmer didn’t leave me until it was replaced by the Sunday Night Stress that accompanied what passed for my career.
Soundtrack to Sixteen (the title refers to compilation CDs the teenage Ben makes) may be set a good 15 years after I did my exams but the worries about school work, and the desperation to fit in with the right crowd, will be familiar to nearly all of us.
It’s a witty, sincere and affecting exploration of the low-key traumas of teenage life, that may rush you right back to your own fumbling, bumbling adolescence. (Unless you were actually the cool kid – but no one ever admits to that, do they.)
Maisy (Scarlett Marshall) is an emotional klutz who has never been kissed (or rather, in these more enlightened times, never kissed anyone), hardly ever gets invited to parties and is definitely not one of the cool kids at her all-girls school.
At home she’s helping her little sister play with dolls and Sylvanian Families, and every attempt at playing it cool when her crush Nathan Beals-Harper comes into view results in some kind of social disaster.
When she’s the only one among her friends not invited to a party – a party at which best friend Megan has her own first kiss – Maisy ditches the warm-hearted Megan (Isabel Fidderman) and her other friends Olivia (Sofia Lövgren Hansson) and Saskia (Robyn Regan), choosing instead to impose herself on a cool girl clique led by her old primary school friend Katelyn (Emily Williams).
She’s vaguely tolerated, and increasingly mocked, tagging along to an awful party and painful meet-ups. It’s after a particularly emotionally bruising sleepover that she finds herself on a bus in her pjs, sitting alongside Ben (Gino Wilson), a pupil at a neighbouring school who she vaguely recognises from the awful party.
Ben is doing badly at school, and he doesn’t know why. He knows he and his mates aren’t cool though.
The film was made in 2013, and Ben and his three best friends – Ethan (Jack Boal), Luke (Sean Micallef) and Jamie (Jamal Hadjkura) – do have a very obvious Inbetweeners vibe, to the extent that I kept expecting their chitchat to veer into endless f-bombs and outrageous humour (it doesn’t).
In fact it all feels quite low-key and gentle, if still upsetting while you’re living it. The Shakespeare Sisters – Anna-Elizabeth and Hillary – wrote and produced Soundtrack to Sixteen, with Hillary directing. They’ve certainly got a sure ear for teen dialogue, and Hillary Shakespeare has a keen eye for how far to push a scene, and how to bring out the humiliations of tiny interactions.
Soundtrack to Sixteen‘s setting does look like a wealthy corner of London – the houses are mostly huge, and it feels very inward-looking, even more so than teenage life is anyway. It suffers in the middle as repetitive, small scale traumas threaten to move from charming to rather irritating.
Luckily, in the main Shakespeare maintains a steady and very knowing course through those choppy (to us at the time) and funny (to us in retrospect) teen years.
Be prepared to feel melancholic too. The feelings we see played out on screen will be familiar whatever our ages now. For the luckiest of us, childhood memories are enjoyable nostalgia, but they’re often also part sorrow at how much we disparaged ourselves, and how little we appreciated our teenage strengths.
I loved the wit, the throwaway one-liners between best friends that never make it into a blog post or Instagram status. At the start we see Maisy and Megan burying Megan’s pet mouse Boris in a park, which is actually “two mice in one” as Boris had eaten his sibling.
And it’s realistic about our tendency to self-sabotage and then refuse to back down, regardless of how it harms us.
Marshall and Wilson make an endearing and clumsily affectionate pairing, as Maisy and Ben tackle the rocky path between friendship and relationship; solid foundations are instantly swept away with a barb that homes in on the other’s insecurities precisely because they recognise in each other their own fears.
The internal monologues they have in their heads are funny and realistic, with Marshall particularly adept at imbuing them with charm and great comic timing (I would so love to hear Katelyn’s though! Is she an insecure mean girl or simply a mean girl?)
By the way if you’re a teenager, it’s actually my job to be the billionth irritating oldie to point out to that you’ll look back from your slightly sagging 40s and marvel at how gorgeous you were, and yet didn’t realise it at the time.
Watch the Soundtrack to Sixteen trailer: