Title: Sweet Sixteen
Play time: 1h 46min
Director: Ken Loach
Screenwriters: Paul Laverty
Starring: Martin Compston, Michelle Coulter, Annmarie Fulton
“What a waste… what a waste.”
I hope I do not give away too much when I say that things do not end well for Liam, the fifteen-going-on-sixteen year-old protagonist of Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen. We hope that they do, but they do not, and that’s pretty much that. But Liam, a fiery young man with an acute sense of responsibility and empathy, does not bend over and take it. The promotional tagline is perfectly accurate: when you’re watching Sweet Sixteen, “it’s you and Liam, against the world.” This is an extraordinary film about an extraordinary kid, the year’s most intensely involving character.
Teenagers in Movies are Often Getting in Trouble – Sweet Sixteen
Screen teenagers are often such idiots, getting themselves into trouble by being nincompoops and then using others to get themselves out. Many of you probably know my predilection for movies with intelligent teens, and Sweet Sixteen‘s Liam (Martin Compston) is a fairly brilliant guy. He may not be on a level with Kieran Culkin’s Igby from Igby Goes Down, but certainly on par with Thora Birch’s Enid from Ghost World.
Alas, he is not as privileged as either of the above two, living in a poor Scottish town and finally having to resort to drug trafficking to keep his family afloat. Actually, the only members of his family he cares a whit about are his mother, who is in prison but being released in a matter of weeks, and his sister and young nephew, both trying desperately to escape the cycle of destruction and self-destruction that has plagued their kin. Then there’s his best friend Pinball (William Ruane), who begins the film stunned at Liam’s outrageously risky plans to obtain and sell the “gear,” but eventually far surpasses him.
Synopsis, Cast & Opinion
Liam’s resourcefulness catches the eye of a local mobster and drug lord, who quickly makes him one of his dealers. He does not, however, take to Pinball, giving him an unpleasant cold shower before telling Liam in no uncertain terms to ditch him if he wants to get anywhere. A pissed-off Pinball drives his car through the window of the guy’s fitness center, landing himself and maybe his friend in some hot water. In response, however, Liam’s boss gives him a cover restaurant to run and an apartment for him and his mother to live in, under the condition that he do something unthinkable.
He never uses drugs, and sells them so that when his mother is released, the two of them can lead a normal life. His main goal is to get her away from her scumbag boyfriend Stan; it is hinted that she is in jail because she took the rap for him. Stan and Liam’s grandfather throw Liam out of the house after he botches their scheme to get “gear” to his mother for her to sell in prison. Whenever he is beaten — and it happens often — his sister cleans him up.
The actors in Sweet Sixteen speak in thick Glasgow accents, but the US prints will all be subtitled so that parsing the script is not a problem (if it were up to me, all British films would be subtitled). The dialogue has the gritty authenticity of toughened street teens, but does not reek of screenwriters trying to imitate same. Loach’s direction is volatile and spontaneous, but resists the temptation to simply shake the camera to indicate instability or what have you. Mostly, the director just gets out of the characters’ way.
Martin Compston a Pleasant Surprise
Newcomer Martin Compston is astonishing. Astonishing. I want to get carried away and declare him something patently ridiculous, like the best young performer of all time, but I won’t do that. Is his the best performance of any actor of any age in at least the first half of 2003? Oh, but certainly. He commands the screen with the confidence of someone who has been in the business for decades, but earns the deepest of sympathy as a tough, sharp, beleaguered boy of fifteen. I was going to order “them” to “get this guy a career,” but I see that he already has one as a semi-pro football player in Scotland. Get him a second career!
Sweet Sixteen Shattered my Heart into Pieces!
In the stunning denoument, Liam must make the realization that the people around him don’t necessarily share his intentions, his goals or his worldview. That one person’s efforts to carve out a better life for him and his loved ones can be dashed because one of them has other plans. That sometimes the cycle will continue no matter what you do, no matter how hard you work to break it. Sweet Sixteen shattered my heart into a million little pieces. Things do not end well for Liam in this movie but oh, how we hope against hope that one day they will change for the better.