As if to prove that I am, in fact, an American film critic, I will openly, and somewhat apologetically, confess that when I was contacted to review the new film written and directed by the Shakespeare Sisters I did, dear god, envision a film from Shakespear's Sister.
Sometimes, I just don't know what to do with myself.
Of course, it didn't take me long to realize my mistake and I sat myself down to check out the warm and delightful Soundtrack to Sixteen, a coming-of-age comedy about two anxious teens growing up in London in the noughties.
Maisy (Scarlett Marshall) is a self-conscious teenage on the verge of her 17th birthday and determined to snag her first kiss before said birthday happens. Her methods, however, leave a lot to be desired as stalking the boy next door (George Fanzio) seems to be having just the opposite effect.
Ben (James Calloway) attends a nearby school where he prides himself on being a nerd and is absolutely convinced of his complete and utter academic superiority. When his grades start to drop, he's forced to face what might be a really horrible truth - he's decidedly average.
You've likely already guessed that Maisy and Ben are going to meet and, yeah, you've likely already guessed they'll stumble through what may very well be the first romance for both of them. With the stress of exams that will help determine their future lingering over their heads, the two attempt to figure out both life and love in this low-key indie gem.
If you're a fan of indie British cinema, it's almost unfathomable that you won't fall completely in love with Soundtrack to Sixteen, an unapologetically British cinematic experience with delightful performances by our co-leads and supporting turns by a spot-on ensemble cast. Winner of the Best Micro-Budget Feature prize at the London Independent Film Festival, Soundtrack to Sixteen opened at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square just before cinemas shut down and the film moved online. The film hit #6 on the iTunes pre-order list on its build-up a UK release and ranked in their top ten rom-coms upon release just over a month ago.
Soundtrack to Sixteen is a warm, spirited effort with a rather beautiful heart and an abundance of natural, honest laughs along the way to telling its story. With a number of indie shorts and a handful of features to her name, Scarlett Marshall undeniably makes a name for herself here and if there's any justice in the world of cinema will have filmmakers knocking on her door from here on out. Marshall's Maisy is adorably awkward, a teenage girl who will do just about anything to fit in with the cool kids but whose own coolness factor is somewhere in the subzero zone. Marshall has a natural aura about her you just love her straight on and that love simply never goes away here.
As Ben, Calloway's transformation is almost the reverse of Marshall's but no less convincing. Brash but always likable, his fits of rage as his grades drop are both funny and surprisingly heartfelt as his only identity starts to slip away and he has to figure out who he is and where he fits in the world. Calloway and Marshall have a strong chemistry with one another and that chemistry really gives the film a nice spark.
Original music by Savage & Spies (The Human Centipede, Hex) is absolutely sublime, while Soundtrack to Sixteen features an absolutely killer soundtrack that will undoubtedly have you humming along. Among the supporting players, Jennie Hilliard and Emily Jayne are particularly stellar though there's not a weak link among the bunch.
The script by the Shakespeare Sisters is endlessly charming, the early hints of sexuality awakening in the performances of Marshall and Calloway with honesty and innocence even as they're seemingly surrounded by others with more experience. There are moments of teenage truth that practically slamdance against the movie screen and scenes that bounce between hilarious and quietly wonderful. It's a marvelous script that I can't stop thinking about even now.
While occasionally predictable, that predictability happens in all the best ways and Soundtrack to Sixteen is just about everything you want a teenage coming-of-age film to be. Filled with heart and humor, humanity and a rich honesty, Soundtrack to Sixteen is one of 2020's true indie gems.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic