I admit that I rented the 1969 film Kes (by mail order from Facets in Chicago) because I’d heard Ricky Gervais on the radio laughing at Karl Pilkington for saying that, aside from The Elephant Man, Kes was his all-time favorite movie. And true, watching it, you can see how little Karl Pilkington might have been a bit like Billy (played by David Bradley, not that one), who avoids real life to retreat to nature. Billy is bullied by his classmates, older brother, and teachers. He learns to train a kestrel by reading a book on falconry, which he stole from a bookshop after the library refused to give him a library card because he didn’t have a father to sign for it.
Kes is one of the first films by director Ken Loach, who went on to do movies like The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Angels’ Share. Loach is one of the few very great living British directors, and Kes is a staple in film culture circles. It is not a joyous coming of age story and instead shows the cruelty shown to children when they are not listened to properly. Billy is picked on for spending all his spare time with his kestrel, which he has named Kes. He doesn’t succeed in school because he has to support his mother, since his father is absent and his brother is a drunk, so sometimes he falls asleep in class or doesn’t have time to do his studies. The gym teacher is especially cruel, forcing him to stand in the ice cold shower as punishment for lying about already having taken a shower. There is but one teacher who sees potential in Billy, but he is unable to breech the walls of Billy’s rocky home life to save him.