Stephen Frears' follow-up to High Fidelity covers much the same territory as Alan Parker's Angela's Ashes with its story of a seven-year-old boy (Anthony Borrows) growing up amid grinding poverty in '30s Liverpool. But where Parker was happy sentimentalising his hero's coming of age (moonglow glistening in every puddle, dead infants in angelic repose), writer Jimmy McGovern places his protagonist's loss of innocence within a wider socio-political context.
From his docudramas such as Hillsborough to fictional series such as Cracker, McGovern's TV work is characterised by dramatic storytelling and a strong sense of social injustice. Those qualities are much in evidence in this account of a poor but loving family ripped apart by the Great Depression and the ravages of unemployment.
At its heart, though, Liam is a rite of passage - - not just for its title character, but also his sister Teresa (Megan Burns), who learns her own life lessons when she goes to work for some wealthy Jews and becomes implicated in her employer's adulterous affair. Back home their father's frustration and bitterness leads him to sign up with Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts, the key to the horrific climax and heartbreaking conclusion.
Anchored by terrific performances from Borrows and Burns, who won Best Young Actress at the Venice Film Festival, Liam is a low-key period piece whose impact far outstrips its TV-movie origins. It's also very funny, with Anne Reid hilarious as the maniacal teacher - a sort of malevolent Mrs Doyle - who gives Liam his first taste of Catholic guilt.
Ian Hart, meanwhile, gives a typically impassioned performance as the proud father turned irrational hatemonger, but the film rightly belongs to its youthful leads. With Billy Elliot on the cusp of Oscar glory, it seems the British film industry is finding its greatest strength in its child actors.