Reel life

An unvarnished—and unpretentious—look at lives of quiet desperation.

MY NAME IS JOE has everything against it: It's about a recovering alcoholic and a social worker; it's set in a poverty-stricken neighborhood of Glasgow; it features Scottish accents so thick they need subtitles. It has junkies, but they don't mug raffishly to Iggy Pop songs and none of them is played by Ewan McGregor. If you see it at all, you'll probably do so from the same sense of duty that drags you to movies by John Sayles. But My Name Is Joe has no political agenda and doesn't rub your nose in human misery; its characters' emotional lives have a genuine integrity that is rare and worth taking in.

Joe Kavanagh (Peter Mullan) has been sober for less than a year and hardly knows how to keep himself occupied. He manages a soccer team of delinquents who play poorly but enjoy themselves. A player of particular concern to Joe is Liam (David McKay), a former junkie with a still-hooked girlfriend and a young son. While picking Liam up for a game, Joe meets the family's social worker, Sarah (Louise Goodall). The two begin a bumpy romance. But when a local gang harasses Liam over an old debt, Joe and Sarah's relationship ends up threatened as well.

My Name Is Joe

directed by Ken Loach

starring Peter Mullan, Louise Goodall

Mullan was named Best Actor at Cannes; his performance has a driving energy that's magnetic without being flashy or movie-star charming. The movie doesn't wallow in his sobriety; there are no close-ups of shot glasses that Joe stares at with sweaty hunger. It's just a fact of his life, like being on the dole and managing a soccer team. My Name Is Joe is less about addiction than what spurs addiction on—the desperate need to forget or escape the past.

If this sounds morose and didactic, it's not. These people aren't woefully yearning for happiness—they're working towards it, squeezing as much life as they can out of what they have to work with.

Personally, I don't revere serious movies for their heaviness. I've sat through high-minded crap about the plight of the poor that was as false and empty as the glossiest Hollywood nonsense. Don't let the bleak trappings of this one put you off; My Name Is Joe will remind you that the lives of real people can be more compelling than aliens or superspies.

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