Adolescence Both Savage and Innocent; Ken Loach’s “Sweet Sixteen”
by Peter Brunette
[EDITOR’S NOTE: indieWIRE originally published this review in May 2002 as
part of our Cannes coverage.]
Ken Loach‘s Cannes competition entry “Sweet Sixteen” marks a welcome return to the world of his most successful films, like “Raining Stones,” “Ladybird Ladybird,” and “My Name Is Joe,” that is, the world of the dysfunctional families of the contemporary British working class, and a movement away from less successful ventures into other times or places like “Land and Freedom,” “Carla’s Song,” and “Bread & Roses.” One difficulty, though, is that somewhat like our own John Sayles, though much less slick, Loach seems always to build the same pre-formed moral into his films. If you’re sympathetic to the director’s leftist politics, which most critics are, you’re not going to have a problem with the message. Still, the feeling that a pre-theorized lesson is being taught does occasionally clash with Loach’s simultaneous all-out effort to present real life directly, in all its rawness and unpredictability. Be that as it may, the freshness and authenticity of “Sweet Sixteen,” especially in the person of its protagonist Liam — both the 15-year-old character and the 17-year-old non-actor who plays him — are so powerful that any critical cavils are simply blown away.
Liam (Martin Compston) is looking forward to the day his mum will be sprung from prison (coincidentally on his 16th birthday, hence the bitterly ironic title), where she’s been consigned by her drug habit and some illegal shenanigans with her criminal boyfriend Stan. Liam hates Stan, and the feeling is mutual. In his effort to pry her loose from Stan’s evil influence, Liam dreams of providing his mother and himself a new place to live in a furnished trailer with a view, “a place to start all over again.” The problem is that to finance his dream, he is forced, paradoxically, to get more and more deeply enmeshed in the underworld that he’s trying to escape. His cohort in crime is his best friend Pinball (William Ruane), a devil-may-care hothead who is led, through jealously, to eventually compromise Liam in the most fundamental ways. Kicked out of Stan’s house, Liam is forced to move in with his sister Chantelle (Annmarie Fulton), a 17-year-old single parent who’s estranged from their mother, and they begin to dream of becoming a family again. The plot thickens, unresolvable dilemmas are created, dreams prove illusory, and things end badly.
As always in a Loach film, however, what redeems the grim scenario recounted above is the abundant laughs that the director always manages to find in his working-class heroes cleverly ripping off the system. (A quality that Mike Leigh‘s “All or Nothing,” also in the competition here, needs desperately.) Liam and Pinball, both 15, are a delight as they brilliantly perpetrate one gutsy, outrageous scam after another, for example, when they invent a way to speed up their heroin deliveries by enlisting the aid of their pizza-delivering buddies. Or just little hilarious things like air-conducting an opera on the radio of a Mercedes they’ve just stolen, great little gags that pop up every few minutes. Incarnated convincingly by first-time actors, these spunky figures remind us of the glories of the supremely natural Italian neo-realism in the late 1940s, yet also a whole lot funnier. Martin Compston, who’s a natural, is particularly charismatic in the role of Liam and has, I think, a fine career ahead of him.
A further mark of the film’s authenticity is the ostentatiously impenetrable Glaswegian dialect that these Scottish characters speak. Wisely, Loach has decided — as he has in some previous films — to provide English subtitles as well as French, since even native Englishmen I talked to said they couldn’t understand the dialogue otherwise. It goes without saying, of course, that every inch of the grimy locations is truthful to the Nth degree.
The only real problem with the film, in addition to the sense of a pre-scripted moral mentioned earlier (which is easily enough forgiven in the face of the film’s inventiveness), is that Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty revert to some shameless melodrama to wrap things up. It’s not that it’s badly done, or embarrassingly unconvincing. It’s just that whereas the rest of the film has seemed so open-ended, at least on the level of event (there’s one particularly wonderful surprise regarding a gangland killing), at the end genre elements take over and we suddenly know exactly where we’re headed. While in many ways a victim of his surroundings, Liam has been portrayed as a bold, natural leader willing to do whatever he needs to do to fulfill his dream, and thus the reversion to the inevitability of Greek tragedy seems misguided. But this is a minor fault, ultimately, in a movie that reflects so deeply, and so powerfully, on the savagery and innocence of youth.