Eleven-year-old Bud (Leigh McCormack) is a working-class Catholic boy from Liverpool circa 1956 who tries to blot out the pain in his life through music and movies. If you think the subject is remote, think again. Writer-director Terence Davies, from a family of ten and the victim of an abusive father, crafts a powerfully moving and formally adventurous film in the style of his Distant Voices, Still Lives. This time, Davies deals with the time after his father's death, when the tyranny lifted.
Bud's attempts to stretch his wings may seem laughably circumscribed in the Nineties. He gets teased by his siblings and watches his mother (the superb Marjorie Yates) sing along with the radio. Music is a constant that allows this family to express feelings otherwise out of its reach.
But for Bud, beautifully played by McCormack, the movies take on a spiritual aura. Shot through the shimmer of memory by cinematographer Michael Coulter, the theater looms like an ornate temple. A shaft of light from the projector catches the anticipation on Bud's face as the screen removes the drab from his existence.
Only a few directors have merged illusion and reality with such delicacy. Woody Allen did it with The Purple Rose of Cairo in 1985. More recently, Hal Prince found light in the shadows with Kiss of the Spider Woman, easily the best Broadway musical of the season, in which a gay window dresser — Brent Carver in a starmaking performance — finds escape through his fantasies of a movie star (the dazzling Chita Rivera). Prince's Kiss finally rouses the sleeping beauty that is Broadway into stunning theatrical life.
vies works the same magic on the embalmed genre of childhood reminiscences (Radio Flyer, The Power of One). A montage that shows Bud going through the ritual of school and church, set to the theme from Tammy sung by Debbie Reynolds, may seem silly or sacrilegious. But Davies gives it a wrenching poignancy that turns understatement into a spectacle and the film into a small miracle.