With ironically titled SWEET SIXTEEN Ken Loach has finally taken his considerable filmmaking talents and used them to make a movie, not a broadsheet. Instead of a screed that thumps its audience over the head with a black-and-white world view of good and evil as in CARLA’S SONG, this is a working class tragedy of mythic proportions, bristling with the inchoate rage of an underclass that is so far down it wouldn’t know how to look up even if it knew that it could.
The focus is Liam, four months shy of his sixteenth birthday and going nowhere fast in the wrong part of Glasgow. In the tradition of futureless kids everywhere who come from homes that were broken from the get go, he engages in a variety of high-spirited petty crimes that give him some pocket change and kill the time. At the beginning of the film, he’s tossed out of the house by his mother’s boyfriend for not helping him smuggle drugs into her during a prison visit. Liam takes the beating and the exile without a tear. His is a cold distant stare of someone for whom emotion is pain. His hopes and dreams are something created out of a fantasy where his emotionally stunted, ex-addict of a mother will be a parent when she’s released. The best he can do for family in the meantime is his single-mother sister who takes him in, and his best friend, Pinball (William Ruane), another throwaway kid who would lay down his life for him.
Loach makes effective use of the cinema-verite documentary style. The camera seems breathless trying to keep up with the story, and edgy as it darts about ferreting out the action. The colors bleached to all but gray, making the image of a rainbow not so much out of place, but an affront to the world over which it arcs. He’s cast actors that convey a visceral immediacy as they struggle to express themselves whether in anger, in resignation, or in the few fleeting glints of happiness they manage to squeeze out of a dour existence. There is an achingly tragic scene in which Liam’s sister reminisces with him about their time in the orphanage during one of the several times that their mother abandoned them. They talk way other siblings recall summer vacations and you realize that their common life has been nothing but disappointment and betrayal. She’s patching him up from yet another beating he takes, this time when a small time drug deal goes bad, which causes her to ask the central question of the film, if he can’t care enough about himself to keep himself safe, how can he care about anyone or anything else?
It’s the set up for the turn the story takes, of course, when Liam joins the big time drug trade, but done with such unaffected and unselfconscious performances from Martin Compston as Liam and Annmarie Fulton as his sister, Chantelle, that it shares a reality on par with the person sitting next to you. It also sets up with more than one poignant paradox. Screenwriter Paul Laverty makes clear that Liam has the sort of initiative that could take any legit operation by storm, and yet Liam can’t find any other channel for it other than crime. Also clear is that the money he’s making to save his mother from her latest boyfriend is earned by selling drugs to mothers who will then go on to ruin their kids lives as his was. He can’t see it any more than he can see that this is another dead end, one that, inevitably, he will arrive at over the bodies of those who love him best.
Loach, who is usually strident and occasionally self-righteous, has created in SWEET SIXTEEN a far more effective platform for his political agenda. He shows us a stratum of society that can’t even recognize that they are being oppressed by the economic status quo. They as a whole are as much a throwaway as any of the individual spawn of junkies depicted here. Loach and Laverty with a gentle but unsentimental view of thier subject inspires compassion from audience for them. And so, when things fall apart, the anguish is scorching and we are not only emotionally engaged, we’re emotionally rent in two.
NB: The film is subtitled to compensate for the colloquial Glasgwegian dialogue