These days troubled teens are likely to turn into monsters or superheroes, but such cinematic opportunities did not exist in the 1960s. The exploration of teenage angst – Rebel without a Cause (1954) and Splendor in the Grass (1961) belonged to a separate compartment although the treatment of mental disorder found outlet in David and Lisa (1962) and Lilith (1964).
But Sky West and Crooked occupies different territory. Hayley Mills does not rail against society and she has found companionship among the younger children. Although the adults want to see her treated in some way, she is not yet an outcast. And it takes an outsider to see her as herself.
Immediately preceding The Trouble with Angels (1966) and The Family Way (1966), this is the first real attempt to move Hayley Mills from cute Disney child star to grown-up. The only problem is that she is both older and younger, older by age (17) but much younger in emotional development. Her main entertainment is burying animals, which becomes something of an obsession. There are hints of sexuality, mild compared to the bolder The Family Way, but a romance with a gypsy when it develops is rather more innocent.
It’s a family affair, marking the directorial debut by her father John Mills and written by her mother Mary Hayley Bell (helped by John Prebble). In part the direction is clean and bold, the trigger for the girl’s ongoing trauma established in the opening scene. But in other parts the movie becomes too bogged down by subsidiary characters determined to form a cabal to contain what they see as her bad influence among younger children. They could almost be kin to the more sinister villagers of Straw Dogs (1971).
Matters are not helped by her alcoholic mother (Annette Crosbie) who is even more unhinged. The vicar (Geoffrey Bayldon – later British television’s Catweazle) is Mills’ only ally until the arrival of a handsome gypsy Ian McShane in his sophomore movie role. McShane has no knowledge of her history and so not been conditioned to view her askance. In fact, he risks alienation among his own community for befriending her.
If Mills is already slightly off-beam (the title an American phrase for madness), then she is knocked completely off-kilter when reminded of the trigger incident which she has managed to keep buried. This is probably the best scene in the film. The teller of the story, clearly intending mischief, is overcome by his own emotions.
Mills was a cut above the normal child star. She had the requisite cuteness while demonstrating considerable acting skill and does herself no disservice here. McShane offers a strong hint of the brooding persona he has since perfected.
This is a well-done drama without being completely satisfying, in part because the fairytale ending jarred with what was otherwise an authentic observation piece. It would have been interesting to roll forward a couple of years to see if decisions taken worked out.
In fairness to the director, he knew he had his work cut out. In his memoir Still Memories he explained: “I have always believed in my career that you should never go on the floor without a totally tight script and, in this case, I was unable to do that. I was persuaded against my better judgement to start filming eight weeks before I was ready. And inevitably it showed in the finished picture. It wasn’t a very bad film, but it could have been a great deal better.” That about sums it up – it wasn’t in the “very bad” class at all but certainly could have been improved.