The world of Kes is the world of our own, declares Ken Loach. He has always been a fighter for the working class, using his art to replace their lost voices over the decades where they have been beaten and forgotten. He provides them a avenue, if not to protest, then to cry out. Kes is an artefact of social realism, shot on a shoestring budget, on authentic locations, with a muddled mix of professional actors and extras plucked from the countryside. It adopts the observational mode of cinema verite, sometimes hovering behind bushes to capture Billy playing alone, sometimes right beside his skinny cheekbones as he pores over his stolen book on falconry. The backdrops are the drabbest, dullest grey, to match the shabby clothing of Billy and his fellow students.
The setting becomes a cage for class. Billy may yet have the fleeting freedom to run around town all he wants, but he knows that sooner or later he will be working in the coal mines and wants nothing to do with it. Loach has enabled a systematic blurring of the boundaries that identify the transition from adolescence into adulthood. Billy is being pushed, much too early, to fend for himself and begin to start thinking about a life of manual labour. Barnsley has long swallowed all the other adults with its pessimism, resigned to their jobs, broken in spirit, and his brother is all but gone too. There is no better scene to describe this than the football match the the teacher participates in. Humorously, he imagines himself as Bobby Charlton in the prime of his career about to score the winning goal against Tottenham, but there is where the laughter ends. Brian Glover plays this part without a hint of embarrassment about him; he does not care that he is bullying and pushing little kids in order to fulfill his power fantasy. So it is a little funny, and much more sad. His punishments have an iron-willed logic about them, with a dose of cruelty. This stems from the principal, who personifies all the other teachers and adults - he yells and yells, using only his age as a superior leverage, and does not attempt to make any effort to understand those he addresses. Like everyone else, he too is waiting for a solution, for something to change. In the meantime, boys continue to be beaten by the cane, with little difference. They feel the sting of the blow, and try a little harder next time to avoid getting caught.
David Bradley's Billy Casper has other ideas. He has seen what the mines have done to his brother (the employment officer mistakenly thinks this as a issue of physical safety) and will done anything to avoid it. He has a skinny skeleton for a body, and is bullied and tormented both at home and school. Billy has what you would call street smarts, which is just a fancy way of saying that he faces worse than most will in his everyday, and has the uncanny ability to worm his way out of some of these situations and do it again the next day. There is a glimmer of hope in his heart, and the world won't have it - it seeks to beat it out of him.
Then one day he stumbles upon something he has never encountered before, a responsibility, a passion. The best scene of the film comes when a teacher encourages him to share his story of training the falcon, and Billy comes alive in his story, in both voice and gesture. After an hour of mumbling and a drooping posture, his eyes light up as he recounts the tale of gaining the trust of Kes. Is the teacher an angle within the ashes? He does something that no other adult does in the film, by admitting that he does not know everything, and asks Billy to share his knowledge with the class.
Billy and Kes share a respect that is seldom seen elsewhere in Barnsley. Billy sees Kes not as a pet, a beast that can be tamed, but as a companion who has decided to stay along with him for a little while. He feeds Kes, who returns the favour by allowing him a small solace. Loach has created a tale of such tragedy and inevitability, because Billy sees the falcon take off into the skies, knowing full well that it could leave him and this wretched place whenever it wants, and lives vicariously in the bird anyway.