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Ken Loach has been making films about working class families for many years and My Name is Joe is one of his most powerful. Peter Mullan is instantly likable as Joe Kavanagh, a recovering alcoholic from Ruchill, a decaying suburb of Glasgow, who has a lot at stake. He has fallen in love with Sarah (Louis Goodall), a health worker, and wants to go straight but circumstances conspire against him. He is determined to help his friend Liam (David McKay) when he gets behind on his payments to a drug dealer but his options are limited and he is forced to make a choice that threatens the stability of his fragile relationship.
Mullan won the Best Actor award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival and it is fully deserved. We know that Joe's problems are overwhelming but we root for him to make it in spite of the odds because of his warmth and humor and generosity towards others. Joe has been sober for a year and attends sessions of Alcoholics Anonymous. He also coaches the local soccer team composed of unemployed workers who have won only one game the entire year. When he meets Sarah, a social worker for the Health Department who is visiting Liam and his wife Sabine (Anne-Marie Kennedy) and young child, things start to look up. We do not learn much about Sarah's past but it is obvious that the two have discovered each other at a crucial point in their life.
In a powerful scene, Sarah asks Joe why he stopped drinking and he tells her how he had beaten a woman he was dating and has never forgiven himself. Both are very tentative about getting involved but they are also drawn to each other and can think about the future for the first time. Sadly, the world has other plans. Sabine is a heroin addict who used the drugs she was supposed to sell and is in serious debt to a local drug dealer McGowan (David Hayman), an old friend of Joe's. When the mobster boss demands that Liam cover his wife's debt or they will break his legs, Joe tries to moderate and ends up striking a deal with the mob, leading to a series of unfortunate events. In one of the most emotionally gripping scenes, Sarah berates Joe for lying to her and he responds "Some of us don't have a choice. Some of us don't have a f***ing choice." The mean streets of Ruchill are strewn with the results of urban decay and Loach does not spare us the details. He even mocks the image of bonnie Scotland with a scene involving a kilt-clad bagpiper playing the same three songs over and over for a group of tourists. Combining gritty realism with humor, My Name is Joe has an outstanding script by Paul Laverty and fully dimensional characters that transcend clichés. Loach does not pass judgment on his characters or directly condemn society for their failings. It is a work of compassion and humanity.
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