Preteen years can be so awkward, especially when you're in the shadow of a bully big brother. And an obsessive-compulsive father. And a blind rabbi preparing you for your Bar Mitzvah. This is the sweet, goofy story of North London's Bernie Rubens, a non-athletic, bespectacled boy waiting excitedly for his Jewish transition into manhood. But the year is 1966 (thus, the title), and as any Brit knows, there was something else going on that year.
That "something else" was the presence of the underdog England soccer club in the World Cup Final. With a final match scheduled for the same day as poor Bernie's Bar Mitzvah celebration. In director Paul Weiland's "true-ish story" (a good establishing joke there), our slight hero carefully prepares, with Martha Stewart-like precision, to finally take his place as the center of attention. But there's that pesky football squad everyone is rooting for...
Weiland, with writing team Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, could have simply drawn the parallel between the two events, but Sixty Six aims for more, and usually succeeds. The filmmakers add depth to Bernie's woes by exposing his family issues, most notably those of his ultra-nebbish father Manny.
As Manny, character actor Eddie Marsan (The Illusionist, Hancock) makes the most of his bulging jowls and inward face, developing a shlumpy Willy Loman-type who's perpetually sad, nervous and proud at the same time. The sticky relationship between Manny and Bernie (assured newcomer Gregg Sulkin) is initially played for giggles -- one a bit far on the absurdity scale -- but is later the pivot point of Bernie's warm recollections.
The absurd moment, involving a terribly persistent dog, illustrates Weiland's occasional weakness in combining too many styles, a common move in the "coming of age" genre. Most of the film resides in that funny-yet-sad territory, but when Sixty Six goes toward goofier humor -- and yeah, there's a blind gag with the rabbi -- the narrative loses a bit of focus.
The saving grace is that Weiland does each of the tones very well. The timing is solid whether the laugh is visual or dialogue-based, and the heartwarming moments are indeed touching. For many viewers, this level of layers may be seen as more of a plus than a problem.
While Marsan and Sulkin command the most attention, two Oscar nominees play a bit of second fiddle, and do so admirably. Helena Bonham Carter is Bernie's loyal and level-headed mom; Stephen Rea participates in a bit role as an asthma doctor who helps Bernie with his breathing and newfound interest in world football.
Which leads us to the fantastic footage of the 1966 World Cup, which Weiland uses gracefully to create parallel action or insert the Rubens' story within a far larger nationalist context. Early in the film, Manny, a grocer, warns a much larger competitor that England loves an underdog. The country certainly did that year, and Weiland is smart enough to work a little cinematic magic during that World Cup final.
It's a conclusion that eventually overstays its welcome, sliding into a bit of melodrama. But for a few shining moments then and throughout, Sixty Six is a satisfying little surprise, just like Bernie and that scrappy little soccer team.
(Side note: The release of Sixty Six comes just about the same time as the DVD issue of The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, another foreign film about a Jewish neighborhood during the World Cup (Brazil, 1970). Talk about a specific genre and a weird coincidence...)