Director: Ken Loach. UK. 2002. 106mins. Screened in Competition.
Continuing the rich collaboration between director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty, Sweet Sixteen puts a very human face on the plight of the socially disadvantaged in modern Britain. The heartrending tragedy of a Scottish teenager struggling for his small share of happiness may not mark a radical departure from Loach's distinguished record of uncompromising social realist dramas but it remains a heartfelt, hard-edged tale of life in the raw. Brilliantly played by non-professional newcomer Martin Compston, the character of Liam is a worthy addition to Kes, Cathy, Joe and the vast army of ordinary lives otherwise ignored by the establishment and marginalised by mainstream culture.
Heavy Scottish accents could pose a marketing headache on this occasion and the Festival screening adopted the unusual, perhaps unique, measure of subtitling a British film in both French and English. A prophet without great box-office appeal in his own country, Loach is unlikely to see anything change with Sweet Sixteen but it will be warmly received in Loach strongholds especially in Europe and particularly were it to receive some Jury recognition.
The second film in an unofficial Loach/Laverty trilogy set in Scotland, Sweet Sixteen once again manages the tricky balancing act of mixing soap box politics with soap opera emotions. Excluded from school and condemned by a society that has nothing to offer him, Liam (Compston) is as doomed as a film noir sap. His mother is in jail, her psychotic boyfriend has no time for him and he has little prospect of gainful employment in an area of Scotland gripped by post-industrial decline, unemployment and a drug culture fuelled by futility. Yet, in many ways Liam is not a victim. Bright, cheeky, and full of brass neck, his tragedy is that he possesses so much potential.
Vowing to make a better life for himself and his mother, his priorities are universal-home, family and love. He sets his sights on a two-bedroom caravan nestled on the banks of the River Clyde. It will allow his mother a fresh start on the day she is released from prison and the day before his sixteenth birthday. It becomes his idea of paradise and he pursues it with all the determination of Lamberto Maggiorani searching for his missing bike in Vittorio De Sica's neo-realist classic The Bicycle Thief. The very best instincts sow the seeds of his destruction as he starts dealing drugs and consorting with big league criminals to earn that better life.
Although moving inexorably towards disaster, Sweet Sixteen is far from gloomy. Laverty allows the viewer some signs of hope in the character of Liam's sister Chantelle (Fulton) who has worked hard to improve her chances and care for a baby boy. He also captures much of the salty humour and sassy attitudes in a community that faces adversity with defiance rather than dejection. Even though Liam is the kind of tearaway whose actions will make make him headline news, Laverty really works to give him a voice. In doing so he shows the youngster's compassion for his family, his naivety and all the impetuous drive of a boy who wants to assume the responsibilities of an adult regardless of the consequences.
Working with a regular team of collaborators that includes production designer Martin Johnson, editor Jonathan Morris and director of photography Ackroyd, Loach deploys his resources to serve the story, highlight the performances and underline the poignancy of events. Renowned for bringing out the best in new and non-professional actors, Loach secures fine work from the entire cast. William Ruane as Liam's foolish pal Pinball and Annmarie Fulton as Chantelle give heartfelt, naturalistic performance that place no barriers between the audience and the characters.
But the real find of the film is professional footballer Compston who is completely at ease before the cameras and merely seems to be the character he has been asked to portray. He even handles the more emotionally demanding moments with all the maturity and sincerity of a much more experienced actor. It's not entirely unreasonable to assume he may be in the Jury's thoughts when they come to consider the Best Actor Prize.
Prod co: Sixteen Films
Int'l sales: The Works
Prod: Rebecca O'Brien
Co prods: Ulrich Felsberg, Gerardo Herrero
Scr: Paul Laverty
Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd
Prod des: Martin Johnson
Ed: Jonathan Morris
Music: George Fenton
Main cast: Martin Compston, William Ruane, Annmarie Fulton, Michelle Abercromby