Billy Casper lives with his elder brother Jud and his mother. They live in a small flat in a factory/mining town in Northern England. Both brothers share the same bed. Billy goes about each day to school wearing the same outfit, always looking rather worn and dirty. He cares not. When he’s not at school, Billy can be seen wandering around town on his paper route, stealing milk or meandering around the countryside with a stick, whacking away at brush and weeds or doing a bit of birdwatching, or getting into a fight with his brother. Though Billy seems to have a great deal of freedom to spend his time as he pleases, his existence has a predestined endpoint based upon where he lives and the family he has born into. In his world in Northern England, there is little hope for a future full of possibilities. He’s expected to learn little in school and indeed, nearly all of the adult figures in the film seem to have it in for Billy. Without fighting against the grain, Billy is likely to take a low paying job in the mines, just like his elder brother does or his father may have done. We would know more about his father if he hadn’t left the family. Billy lives in a world where nearly everyone expects the worst in him, or even goes so far as to antagonize him to keep him down, especially the school superintendent who seems determined to crush everyone’s spirits.
In the same way that some parents may try to steer their children to more practical choices when they hear that they want to pursue a career as a painter or English major instead of a lawyer or doctor. Billy also finds a most ‘impractical’ object of interest instead of prepping to pursue a more appropriate career in a factory or mine: Training a kestrel. After seeing some kestrels flying in a field, Billy pilfers a book on the subject of Falconry from a local bookshop. Determined to pursue this quest, he rather quickly becomes a master on the subject. Not only does Billy catch a kestrel, but he houses, feeds, and trains it with such a respect for craft and expertise that he begins to take on a sort of maturity of spirit through his relationship with the bird he calls Kes. As time marches on, Billy splits his time between school and his bird, with Kes being his clear favorite thing in the world. Billy finds a certain peace and power shifted to him through his passion, ingenuity, and initiative to train his bird, which in its own way is his act of social defiance as he refuses to conform to the expectations of mediocrity and humiliation set before him by parents, school principles (“Your’s is the generation that never listens!” ), coaches and employment agencies.
David Bradley’s performance as Billy goes down as one of the most naturalistic in the realm of childhood roles. You never for once see him attempting to act. Ken Loach of course supports this approach through the way he films, but you still have to cast it correctly. Billy is so slight and grungy that he seems more like a 10 year-old boy who rolls in the mud, rather than a 15 year-old boy on the cusp of young adulthood. There are all those things he’s supposed to be thinking about at age 15, like girls. But, Billy has a state of mind devoid of distractions like that. For him, he sees no limitations yet, refuses to give in, and is determined to let his interests carry him through the day without anyone stopping him. Despite the fact that people believe Billy can’t read (“What's tha got this (book) for when thou can't read?”), Billy clearly can read above the ability that is expected of him. Billy’s voice-over while training the bird, as he repeats the lines from the book regarding feeding and training, act both as a means of showing us how intentional Billy is to follow the guidance in the book to the last detail, but also to show us that he is internalizing it, mastering it and can clearly read above and beyond what others think he can.
I would be remiss if I forgot to mention a particular vignette in the film. There’s a funny and very detailed sequence during a physical education session where the gym teacher gathers all the boys to play soccer for their exercise for the day. The coach seems to live in some kind of absurd man-child existence. It’s pretty hilarious when the coach says, “Alright we’re Manchester United, who are you?” The teacher is playing harder than any of the boys and makes it seem like it’s a life and death match, pushing the kids around, calling penalties and generally wreaking havoc. To my mind, this sequence is about as accurate a depiction of what it’s like to be a bunch of boys called together to play a game on a field. Half the boys aren’t even paying attention with two fat boys playing some kind of pat-a-cake game and Billy climbing on the goalpost driving the teacher nuts. It’s a rather hilarious and truthful sequence in all, inducing both laughs and cringes and is one of the highlights of the film. Loach has a lot of fun with this sequence by displaying the score of the game as if it’s a live broadcast on television.
Loach builds the film to its most moving sequence when Billy has to relay a truthful story to the class. Everyone pressures him into talking about his bird. He proceeds to explain to a rapt audience about how he trained his bird Kes, how he feeds it, how he trained it to fly on the leash and then how he got up the gumption to let Kes fly without a leash. It’s a riveting scene and it’s mostly due to the way Billy comes to life when he talks about his bird. It’s his time to shine. What is so defining about this scene is that it is a window into the possibilities that may lie ahead for Billy. This display of passion, leadership and expertise is a shock to those around him (even his teacher) as it goes completely against what his “life’s calling” is supposed to be. Even Billy’s teacher finally gives attention to him, coming to visit him and his bird and witnessing what Billy and his bird can do. It’s the one moment where an adult takes an interest in supporting Billy. Loach thus reminds us through this of the importance of parents, teachers and mentors in the lives of all children and how they can support the children in their lives. Yet, the end of the film is a quick comedown as Billy’s life in Northern England isn’t going to provide any easy pathways. His brother swiftly kills Kes to repay a bit of mischief on Billy’s part. One couldn’t think of anything more cruel or spirit-crushing to happen to Billy. He doesn’t let the bird stay in the trash-can though, fishing him out of there to give him a proper burial. Despite this grievous loss, there’s clearly been growth in Billy. Kes is a masterful, realistic coming of age story, told with particular grace and sensitivity by Ken Loach.