The hero of Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen is an isolated teenager mired in a gray Scottish slum with only a vague dream of family life to sustain him. Like previous Loach heroes -- the impoverished boy who finds hope training a falcon in Kes, say, or the downtrodden working stiff struggling to shed his past in Riff Raff -- 15-year-old Liam (Martin Compston) has plenty of defiant courage, but the odds aren't good. If the cops don't nip him, the local toughs are bound to. His wayward mother (Michelle Coulter) is in jail on drug charges. Mum's boyfriend, a vicious heroin dealer named Stan (Gary McCormack), smacks him around. His grandfather (Tommy McKee) is a bad-tempered drunk. Trying to survive on the streets of Greenock, a grim shipbuilding town with a chip on its shoulder, Liam hasn't got much of a chance.
Here in America, we see plenty of movies combining adolescent terror, neglectful parents, and urban danger. But Loach's grasp of such stuff has been absolute for three decades, and his young star, a nonprofessional with the stink of the gutter on him, gives off the kind of real-life vibes that Loach's brand of gritty social realism (and his dark sense of humor) demands. No actorish tricks for young Compston. The dirt under his fingernails is as real as his wary sneer, and when Liam takes a series of bloody beatings with stoic bravery, we get the idea that the kid playing him has been there too.
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The ironically titled Sweet Sixteen is Loach's fourth collaboration with screenwriter and radical lawyer Paul Laverty and his ninth with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. The mission they undertook long ago -- the director once said it is "to clarify the lives of ordinary people" -- has never seemed clearer, and the unpleasant realities they uncover here strike us with blunt force. Among recent films about troubled teens, only Catherine Breillat's unblinking look at adolescent sex and psychological damage, Fat Girl, can compare with this one for the harshness of its reality and the down-and-dirty skill of its cast.
On the verge of his 16th birthday, Liam has no resources but his essential decency and a scrappy perseverance, and he puts them to work in a stubborn, naive quest to reconstruct his shattered family. His mother will soon be released from prison, and he hopes to somehow provide her with a normal life and to bring off a reconciliation between Mum and his sister, Chantelle (Annmarie Fulton), an unmarried mother struggling to raise a little boy. He doesn't know how this will happen, but he struggles on.
Everywhere Liam turns, he finds violence and corruption. When he refuses to smuggle drugs into jail for his mother, her boyfriend belts him and his grandfather throws him out of the house. Left to the streets, he sells black-market cigarettes with his reckless friend Pinball (the vivid William Ruane). They pull off a dangerous drug heist, and soon enough Liam gets tangled up with the local crime boss, Tony (Martin McCardie), a slippery piece of work who -- in a classic gangster movie trope -- recognizes himself in young Liam's daring. Running drug deliveries out of a pizza parlor -- the movie's funniest scenes -- the boy rises quickly, and his mission to save Mum takes the form of making a big down payment on a house trailer (the Scots call it a caravan) on the shore of the Clyde estuary.
But anyone who knows Ken Loach's work (his recent credits include My Name Is Joe and Bread and Roses) suspects that the boy's quest, as touching as it is ill-formed, is likely to end in eerie doom. His two dozen films, bristling with stark naturalism, may be full of passion, but they're short on hope. So while the mean streets of Greenock are just right for first-rate filmmaking, they're no place for a happy ending.