Sweet Sixteen (2002)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/15/07 22:00:50

5 stars (Awesome)

The first few minutes of “Sweet Sixteen” tell us everything we need to know about its main character, a fifteen-year-old lad named Liam. We first see him helping children look through a telescope at the nighttime sky (for a small fee). Next, we see him and his pals selling cheap cigarettes on the streets and in a diner to whomever will buy. And then we watch as he tricks a truck driver to run over a policeman’s motorcycle, after which Liam steals the cop’s helmet.

Already, we know he is kindhearted but a troublemaker, good with schemes, with a head for business and the recklessly playful attitude of any teenage boy. What happens next only tells us in which directions such a personality will head as his story progresses.

Liam, played by Martin Compston, is a dazzling character; while the smart kid in a lousy world is nothing we haven’t seen before, it’s written and performed cleverly enough that he feels new. Compston lends a compassion to his role that helps keep his character firmly planted in the real world, even when Liam heads to the edges of crime picture territory. Director Ken Loach and his frequent collaborator writer Paul Laverty, meanwhile, make sure that their film always remains about the people, not the action, and so as Liam digs himself deeper into a seemingly inescapable world of crime, drugs, and violence, we’re with him emotionally every step of the way.

It helps that Loach is known for works of politically and socially charged heartbreak, with most of his movies featuring downtrodden Scots surrounded by misery. “Sixteen” returns Loach to these roots, with a world where people have crime or drugs as their only means of escape.

The story opens with Liam heading out to the local prison to visit his mother (Michelle Coulter). His mom’s drug dealer rat of a boyfriend, Stan (Gary McCormack), is hoping to use Liam to sneak some heroin to his mom, so she can sell it inside and get money back out to Stan. But Liam’s had enough, and he wants only good things for his mom from now on - so he refuses to do the smuggle, which leads to a massive beating and Liam’s running away to live with his sister (Annmarie Fulton).

Liam wants everything to be good for mum once she’s released, but he knows a career of selling stolen cigarettes won’t cut it. (And no, he hasn’t been to school in ages, so that’s out, too.) He concocts a scheme: steal some heroin from Stan, then sell them to druggies who are on their way to buy from the neighborhood dealer. This doesn’t go so well, but it does catch the eye of the mafia, who take the kid and his friends in.

What makes “Sixteen” so unique despite its familiar ideas is its emphasis on emotion and character. The filmmakers want to remind us that despite his criminal future, Liam is essentially a good kid whose only real concern is making life better for his mother. But Liam, who’s getting closer to his sixteenth birthday, is also becoming a man, and in his neighborhood, becoming a man means learning how to incorporate violence into your life. (Liam’s no stranger to violence, of course, but now he must learn how to dish it out.)

The story unfolds in ways that are both familiar - Liam’s friend Pinball (William Ruane) becomes a showy, careless type who’s bound to create too much trouble - and unexpected - Liam’s balancing of boyhood and manhood result in actions formed not by clichéd plot points, but by the natural following of the character, allowing for some pleasantly unpredictable moments. Laverty and Loach make sure that every action is the honest result of Liam’s train of thought at this age, in this place, at this moment in time.

All of this gives us a crime picture that’s smarter than usual because it’s not really about crime. Crime is an element, sure, but so is poverty, and abuse, and boredom, and puberty, and everything else that goes into making Liam the person he is. And so it becomes a pleasure - and a heartbreak - to see the story work its way out, with so much attention given to the characters, to their setting, to their situation. Loach takes a wise low-key approach to direction, never letting his camera get in the way, allowing us to listen to Laverty’s elegant language siphoned through such thick accents. (It takes a smart writer to see the slanted genius behind a descriptive line of dialogue like “the same usual as always.”)

The cast and filmmakers have created some extraordinary characters for us to get to know, and some painful situations in which we will find them. “Sweet Sixteen” is a wonderfully bittersweet effort, and one of Loach’s best works.

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