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Sweet Sixteen   B

Lions Gate Films

Year Released: 2002 (USA: 2003)
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ken Loach
Writer: Paul Laverty
Cast: Martin Compston, Annmarie Fulton, William Ruane, Michelle Abercromby, Michelle Coulter, Gary McCormack, Tommy McKee, Calum McAllees.

Review by Eric Beltmann

If Ken Loach's kitchen-sink characters often feel overly familiar to us -- from Italian neo-realism, from Britain's Free Cinema movement, from Mike Leigh's grotty improvisations -- why is it they endure, becoming more absorbing the more we look at them? The answer probably has something to do with Loach's ability to shyly transmute behavior, milieu, and dialect into angry social discourse. His unforced, working-class naturalism frequently congeals into an unassailable geometric proof of how cyclical poverty and hopelessness are blots on us all, not just the less fortunate.

Nevertheless, I've always been rather uncomfortable with the clout that Loach ascribes to social determinism, and his latest slice-of-grim-life, Sweet Sixteen, marks a return to his gloomy philosophical conviction that our choice of actions are dictated largely by our class position. Loach here gazes at Liam, a 15-year-old Scottish tough living in Greenock, a once-prosperous river town now plagued by population out-migration. Confident, resourceful, and unexpectedly sensitive, Liam resolves to earn enough money to buy a trailer home for his mother, as a surprise gift upon her release from prison. Dreaming that his Mum, his sister Chantelle, and her little son Calum will all live happily on the riverbank, Liam decides to slink under the wing of a local drug kingpin, and we follow the consequences of that desperate yet comprehensible choice. If I admit certain qualms about the way Loach allows Liam to harbor hopes about better tomorrows only to squash them as illusory, I also hasten to add that he never resorts to class bias or condescension in order to make his points. In fact, I'm relieved to say that his characters lack the squealing, lilting stupidity that has begun to regularly poison those in Leigh's most recent pictures.

Still, what's great about Sweet Sixteen isn't its politics but the way everything feels simultaneously inevitable and spontaneous, especially in terms of the acting and mood. The plot trajectory relies on a classic template, but Loach treats the genre elements as if they were fresh -- and in a way, they are, since I can't think of another film that realistically probes the motivational, emotional, and psychological dynamics involved with an apprentice mobster and his initiations. Much of the credit also belongs to the young, scruffy newcomer Martin Compston, who was 17 when discovered at a school audition. Compston gets inside the vulnerability and naïve logic that propel every one of Liam's unwise choices, and we grasp how despair can mutate into resentment, and then into self-destruction. As Liam nears his 16th birthday, the milestone is more like a millstone, a reminder that his sweet dreams aren't likely to manifest themselves in adulthood, especially since society doesn't expect a guy like him to have any aspirations.

Review published 10.06.2003.

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