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SWEET SIXTEEN (director: Ken Loach; screenwriter: Paul Laverty; cinematographer: Barry Ackroyd; editor: Jonathan Morris; music: George Fenton; cast: Martin Compston (Liam), William Ruane (Pinball), Annmarie Fulton (Chantelle), Michelle Abercromby (Suzanne), Michelle Coulter (Jean), Gary McCormack (Stan), Calum McAlees (Calum), Jon Morrison (Douglas), Martin McCardie (Tony), Tommy McKee (Rab), Junior Walker (Night-time), Gary Maitland (Side-kick); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Rebecca O’Brien/Barry Ackroyd; Lions Gate Films; 2002-UK-the Scottish brogue is subtitled)
Its bleak tale was lightly delivered and filled with a wry Scottish wit and a poignant social realism that rang true.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Ken Loach’s (“Poor Cow”/”Kes”/”Land and Freedom”) neo-realism drama Sweet Sixteen is a simple and familiar modern urban story about a boy determined to have a normal life despite his unfortunate circumstances. It’s set in the small depressed western Scotland seaside town of Greenock. It reminds me somewhat of De Sica’s Bicycle Thief, where the main character is looking to hold onto a dream he can’t keep. It’s Loach’s fourth collaboration with screenwriter Paul Laverty, as his screenplay won that prize in Cannes. The film won the British award as the best independent film.

The impoverished fifteen year old Liam (Martin Compston, teenager soccer pro) lives with his older teenager unmarried sister Chantelle (Fulton) and her young son Calum in their small flat, as his unreliable junkie mom Jean (Coulter) is in jail and his obscene grandfather (Tommy McKee) threw him out. Liam’s a street kid hustler selling stolen fags (cigarettes) on the cheap, doing small-time mischief, petty crimes and not attending school. He’s at odds with the world around him, and even though he wants to stay away from violence it follows him around. His best friend is the loose-cannon Pinball, who is also aimless and from a dysfunctional family. Chantelle is the voice of reason, who is determined to bring up Calum the right way and is trying to make something of herself by attending school to learn how to be a computer operator. She also has an affection for Liam and wants him to straighten his life out, as she’s not impressed with his bravery in fighting as she tells him he only fights so hard because he doesn’t care what happens to him. Chantelle has written mom off as a hopeless lost soul who can’t live apart from the drug world, and if it weren’t for mom’s vicious drug dealer boyfriend Stan Irvine (Gary McCormack) using her and talking her into taking his jail rap–she would only be with another druggie. Liam on the other hand is a naive momma’s boy with an Oedipal problem, as he dreams he can start over again with mom and have a fresh go at it if they moved away from the city.

Stan places some gear (drugs) in Liam’s mouth and orders him to pass it to her when they kiss during a jail visit. Liam doesn’t go through with that and receives a thrashing from Stan and is cursed out by his hateful grandfather, whose partners with Stan in drug dealing. But Liam spots where Stan hides his heroin stash and as revenge he gets Pinball to go partners as they ingenuously steal it from under the floorboard of the kennel by luring away the guard dogs.

In the country, Liam spots a caravan in an isolated spot overlooking the sea and dreams of living there with mom when she’s released in a few months. The teen partners sell their drugs and this gives Liam enough cash to put a down payment on the caravan. Trouble comes when the local big shot drug dealer questions the boys who have invaded his drug turf. The dealer takes a shine to Liam, especially when he sees the kid is not a druggie and has some business skills. He soon puts him on the payroll. Pinball doesn’t please the smooth dealer, as he gets left out of the equation and reacts in the turbulent way one would expect such a hothead to. It all leads down a predictable road of gloom and a string of clichés for the hopeless, as the bloody fatalistic finale takes place when Liam turns 16 and mom is released from prison the same day.

The pointed message is that these kids have little opportunity to lead a normal life because there’s crime all around them, their families are all screwed up, their educational skills are limited and they are poor. There are liberal caveats about society not giving these unfortunates a fighting chance, but that doesn’t get in the way of the drama and the unpretentious naturalistic performance by the likable Compston keeps the pot boiling. Though the drama broke no new ground, its bleak tale was lightly delivered and filled with a wry Scottish wit and a poignant social realism that rang true.

Since many of the characters had heavy Scottish accents, the film appropriately comes with English subtitles.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”