Sweet Sixteen

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

SWEET SIXTEEN

6/10

UK (UK/Germany/Spain) 2002 : Ken Loach : 106 mins

Teenage football professional Martin Compston – a first-teamer at Scottish Third Division outfit Greenock Morton – found himself in unlikely company in May 2002, when his performance in Sweet Sixteen saw him tipped for the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival alongside the likes of Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) and Ralph Fiennes (Spider). That award ended up going to Olivier Gourmet for The Son – and Ken Loach missed out on both Best Director and the Palme d’Or. But Sweet Sixteen didn’t leave the Croisette empty handed, Paul Laverty receiving the Best Screenplay gong in a classic example of the spread-the-love approach that afflicts far too many movie awards ceremonies. Because it turns out that Laverty’s contribution is by far the least satisfactory aspect of Sweet Sixteen, undermining the admirable work from Loach, Compston and the other performers.

15-year-old Liam (Compston) is an essentially good-natured young lad forced into a life of crime by economic, social and family circumstances. His mother Jean (Michelle Coulter) is in prison for an unspecified offence, and Liam is determined that the day of her release – coincidentally, the day after his own 16th birthday – will mark a new start for both. Desperate for cash in order to buy a riverside trailer-caravan home, Liam steals a stash of drugs from Jean’s thuggish boyfriend Stan (Gary McCormack) and, with best pal Pinball (William Ruane), starts a small-scale dealing operation. It isn’t long before Liam’s activities attract the attention of the local Mr Big, and the youngster rapidly finds himself out of his depth.

Many audiences will find much of Sweet Sixteen‘s heavily Morton-accented dialogue hard to decipher – but these occasional linguistic difficulties are a small price to pay for such an authentic atmosphere. As usual working with a cast mainly made up of non-professionals, Loach makes us feel that we’re casually eavesdropping on very real lives, hearing real voices that are too often marginalised in post-Thatcher Britain. There’s no weak link in the cast, and Compston is terrific as the happy-go-lucky Liam – an honours graduate of the Academy of Hard Knocks, and thus never once seen anywhere near anything so quaint as a schoolroom. The low-key early scenes are a marvellously effective character study of this irrepressible, imaginative child-man – the very first shots, in which Liam shows younger kids Saturn through his telescope in a field at night, are Loach at his surprising, poignant best.

Loach’s skill and Compston’s strengths, however, make it all the more frustrating that the central character is developed so clumsily by Laverty. Liam has to grow up very fast, but even so, his transition from cheeky, petty criminal to cold-blooded gangland hitman is startlingly rapid (as in Robert Guedigian’s unashamedly Loachian La Ville est Tranquille, the gritty urban realism isn’t exactly helped by the sudden appearance of an underworld-assassin plotline.) In the second half, meanwhile, it seems as though Laverty and Loach are determined to see many unsympathetic acts can be perpetrated by a protagonist they – and Compston – had initially built up as so engaging and, we’d been led to believe, fundamentally decent.

The latter stages hinge on a series of increasingly unlikely plot developments that lead up to a tragic finale which has a distractingly gratuitous feel and sets up a downbeat final shot that, like so many doomed-youth movies, sees its hero standing alone on a beach. It’s yet another hommage to Truffaut’s 400 Blows, of course – just like this year’s Hungarian variation on very similar themes to Sweet Sixteen, Kornel Mondruzco’s Pleasant Days (in both instances, of course, the titles are oh-so-ironic). Like Loach, Mondruzco has no trouble creating an entirely plausible, gritty milieu for his dead-end characters – in both instances, the problems only arise when the script’s melodramatic tendencies start getting out of hand.

There is, nevertheless, much to like about Sweet Sixteen – Loach’s unspoken (but unmistakeable) political and socio-economic subtexts confirm it as a necessary and angry film of the type which should always be a vital component of any British film industry. Liam is, from one perspective, an admirably resourceful brand of budding capitalist entrepreneur – at one stage he literally heeds Norman Tebbit’s notorious ‘on your bike’ advice, using a local pizza business’s moped delivery-service as a speedy means of drug distribution. And Sweet Sixteen is all too depressingly accurate when it comes to the job prospects facing so many of Britain’s undereducated teenagers – the most ambitious of Liam’s pals aspires only to a life of answering telephones in a call-centre, and the only viable “apprenticeships” are of the GoodFellas variety.

25th September, 2002
(seen same day, Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle)

by Neil Young
Back to Film Index