Rita Tushingham stars in this subtle but powerful drama of a teenage girl finding her way in lower-middle-class England. Her mom Helen (Dora Bryan ) hasn’t got much time or patience for Jo (Tushingham). The girl wants to quit school and go to work. What Jo finds is Jimmy (Paul Danquah), a sailor, who gets her pregnant.
We also see mom’s boyfriend, Peter Smith (Robert Stephens) and Jo’s other boyfriend, Geoffrey Ingham (Murray Melvin). Jo is a sort of female version of the Albert Finney Angry Young Man type in this era of British film. Younger than Finney’s characters, she nonetheless has the automatic disdain for just about everything, especially parental and authority figures.
We start with a panorama of rundown street scenes (with some more sedate architecture mixed in) as Jo returns home on the bus. Jimmy helps her with her stuff. As soon as Jo steps in the door she and mom start arguing. Mom says she’s going to meet Peter. At a pub, Helen sings some old popular tunes, with Peter alongside.
Jo sees them coming home later. Looking at Peter, she says, dismissively, “What’s this one called?” Next morning, she’s getting ready for school. Mom fumbles around with a bunch of Jo’s very sophisticated drawings; at school she gets in some trouble for mocking the teacher.
Despite the beautiful, evocative literature the teacher’s reading (Keats?), it just seems boring to the class. They’re not ready for it, or, like everything else here, the good things are more or less hidden.
Helen (Jo never calls her ‘mom’) is a selfish, superficial bore, as is Peter. Jimmy, on the other hand, despite being old enough to be an uncle, shows Jo genuine respect and affection (looks like she’s about 14, maybe he’s 20). So, it’s no surprise that she takes to him.
Her sarcasm turns to wit, her smugness–just a playful pose. Anyway, she goes down to the waterfront to find Jimmy; he patches up her scraped knee on board his ship. They meet up quite a bit; in bed too. She says she loves him.
Meanwhile, Peter’s attempts to romance Helen are less than warm and fuzzy. Jo doesn’t look favorably on mom’s prospects “I’ll be dead and buried by the time I’m your age… you’re forty, but you look like a well-preserved sixty.” Direct hits.
After bailing out of a particularly wretched holiday with her ‘family’ (mom, Peter and another couple), she goes home and finds Jimmy. They have a carefree, fun time, but he has to ship out. Mom comes home, announcing to Jo that she’s marrying Peter. She also discovers the ring that Jimmy’s given Jo.
“Marriage can be murder for a kid” is among the actually needful tidbits that Helen gives her. Jo asks about her father, whom she apparently never knew. Mom tells her about the day she was conceived. Anyway, Jo sees her mom off–time for Jo’s new job. The shopkeeper is protective of her, even though sales are hard to come by. A young guy, Geoffrey, comes into the shoestore.
She moves out. At a parade, she sees Geoffrey; they agree to go to the fair, with all its amusements. They go back to her place, she tells him goodnight, but then asks him inside. He confesses that he was evicted from his place. She says he can stay if he tells about “what you do” (she means as a gay man).
She apologizes. He stays. She taunts him slightly “I might be after you!” Then he’s “like a big sister to me.” He is domestic, taking care of her place, cooking, etc. They even find some kittens. One day he goes looking for her, she tells him she’s pregnant. He mentions abortion as if he just discovered a big secret. He does say what she should do, but she doesn’t want to listen.
“You’ll be your usual self” in no time, he says, trying to comfort her. “What is my usual self? My usual self is a very unusual self!” That launches her into a better mood; now she wants to go with him to the country. He desperately wants to be close to her, but she pushes him off “You’re nothing to me; I’m everything to meself!” Spoken like a true Angry Young Person. He even offers to marry her. He really does want to take care of her.
She taunts him “you have no confidence, do you?!” They walk by a woebegone canal, faced by dilapidated buildings. As is many other outdoor scenes, there’s bunches of happy children running around, singing. Geoff: “I’d rather be dead than be away from you…being with you is my life” just then, she feels the baby kick.
“We don’t ask for life, we have it thrust upon us” she muses, seeing a dead bird on a grave. When he gives her a doll to ‘practice’ with, she explodes again “I don’t want to be a mother! I don’t want to be a woman!” Well, under the circumstances, in that time and place, it could not have been easy.
Could say about the same for Geoff, as he and Helen more or less trade insults “what’s your role [with Jo]? Nursemaid?” Meanwhile, Helen, of course, has her own odd situation with her loutish husband. Mom goes to visit Jo, anyway. She criticizes her daughter, then Geoffrey. The mother and daughter end up calling each other whores.
Almost fittingly, all three of them are disgusted by Peter, who staggers in. Finally, Jo and her mom relax and talk sincerely. A bit later, Jo’s down by the river; she tells him she doesn’t love Jimmy any more. They recite nursery rhymes. She says “I always want to have you with me, because I know you’ll never ask anything from me.”
Time for moms to return. More arguing, as Geoff feels like a third wheel. Jo tells him that between her mom and him, that’s it’s “a choice between two old women.” But she tells mom that she wants him to stay. But he writes Jo a note; he’s leaving. She now tells mom that the baby’s father is black.
In the courtyard, the kids seem to be having a Guy Fawkes Day celebration. She reads the note (Geoff basically just says goodbye). We end like that. A little kid hands her a sparkler, we hear the others singing the same song we’ve heard at the beginning, and at times throughout.
This familiar and comfortable motif–the kids playing and singing, the helpful way they seem to always know what’s going on–is in continual juxtaposition with the grit and drudgery surrounding Jo, and the hapless shallowness of her mom’s life. The movie shows how Jo tries, with both Jimmy and Geoff, to transcend what life has dealt her.
Though there is no definite resolution, she has attained the independence and perspective she’ll need not to become like her mom. In a way, the innocent backdrop (the kids having fun) is an expression of the hope and spontaneity that Jo has sought. Strangely, though she’s abandoned by both men, and having learned how useless her mom is, there’s a bit of euphoria in the bonfire celebration at the end.
Very nuanced acting–particularly by Tushingham, no less by Bryan–bring this drama into sharp, unrelenting focus. It’s significant that none of these people is really a great person; both of Jo’s guys are flawed from her point of view (Geoff through no fault of his own), Peter is worse, and get mom takes the proverbial cake.
Which leaves Jo. She’s not exactly easy to get along with; her mom’s made her bitter. Jo’s always nice to Jimmy, but he’s basically run out on her; his job is really just a reason for leaving, not an excuse.
Anyway, this drama builds an engaging, multi-layered story around an elegantly simple plot; we see ordinary people struggling to either become aware of themselves or just lapse into delusion. Great stuff. 10/10.