Returning to territory he knows well, Ken Loach is in exceptional form with “Sweet Sixteen,” a slice of working class social realism in a tough Glasgow district, rendered deeply moving by the director’s peerless capacity to combine humor and compassion with honesty and despair. It’s Loach’s first film since “Kes” to center not on adults but on an adolescent — and in this case, one who’s sucked into a bleak spiral of crime and hopelessness. This is a superbly modulated drama, steadily increasing its heart-wrenching quality via quiet, unmanipulative means. While its commercial spectrum remains at the high end of the arthouse market, critical support and the added emotional resonance supplied by its focus on youth and family should make this one of the director’s more widely embraced entries.
A companion piece to 1998’s “My Name Is Joe,” the film was shown in Cannes with English subtitles, a necessity given the characters’ thick Glaswegian accents. Setting is the Greenock and Inverclyde areas of Glasgow, where 75% of children leave school early without qualifications, facing rampant unemployment, poverty and often domestic violence, crime, drug abuse, abandonment and homelessness.
A product of that environment is Liam (Martin Compston), who is awaiting the release of his mother Jean (Michelle Coulter) from prison in time for his 16th birthday. Opening scene shows the boy’s reach for something beyond his narrow world as he studies the planets and stars through a telescope.
His backbone is evident when he visits Jean in prison accompanied by his hardened grandfather Rab (Tommy McKee) and Jean’s drug-dealer boyfriend Stan (Gary McCormack). Refusing to place Jean at risk by passing her a heroin stash to sell, Liam is brutally beaten by Stan and Rab and is thrown out of the house.
He moves in with his bright, caring sister Chantelle (Annmarie Fulton) and her infant son. She patches up Liam’s wounds, something she’s been doing since childhood, and further instills in him the desire for a real family life. He sets his sights on a trailer home for sale in a peaceful spot as the perfect place to bring his mother. Aided by best friend Pinball (William Ruane), Liam obtains the deposit by cleverly intercepting Stan’s heroin supply, turning the cops onto him and then selling the stash around town.
Given something to strive for, Liam becomes more fearless and reckless, moving in on sales turf ruled by a group of extremely well connected big-league dealers. But when they learn of the encroachment and pull him in for disciplining, Liam’s pluck and initiative make an impression. He gets taken on as a dealer, assembling an efficient distribution network by amusingly tapping into a pizza delivery service.
While he sees his dreams dissolve when the trailer is torched, Liam’s business savvy pays off, earning him an offer of a free apartment in an upmarket riverside suburb. But in exchange, he is forced to deal with Pinball, whose loose-cannon antics have made him an enemy of the boss. A degree of uncertainty lingers around the exact outcome of Liam’s encounter with his friend, but it becomes clear that his desire to secure a future for himself, his mother, Chantelle and her son has made all other instincts secondary. The real conflict comes, however, with Jean’s release, as she makes choices that represent a crushing blow to Liam.
This an affecting, entirely believable story of bitter disappointment, thanks to Paul Laverty’s economical script and good ear for dialogue, combined with Loach’s simple, direct style, intimate grasp of the characters and faultless handling of key conflicts and confrontations. And giving the film a quiet emotional pull and resoundingly melancholy resolution are the rich vein of humor (often deriving from colorful local vernacular), the tenderness in Liam’s scenes with Chantelle and his mother, and the sad reality of his narrow options.
Majority of the cast is composed of either non-professionals or young actors who have undergone some training but have no film experience. As always with the director, performances are utterly naturalistic without a forced emotional moment.
Center screen in almost every scene is Compston — now starting a career as a professional soccer player — who is especially impressive, displaying the character’s intelligence, resourcefulness, toughness and cheek while subtly exposing his needs and vulnerability.
Regular d.p. Barry Ackroyd’s camera observes from detached positions, contrasting the bleakness of the immediate environment with the openness and light of the surrounding countryside. George Fenton’s understated score provides a gentle comment on the action.