SWEET SIXTEEN (Ken Loach, 2002)

One of the great British filmmakers who are currently working (Peter Watkins and Michael Winterbottom are two others), Ken Loach achieved his masterpiece, perhaps, with 2001’s The Navigators,* a typically socially and politically committed film essaying the disastrous consequences of Prime Minister John Major’s Thatcheritic privatization of the British railway industry. On a roll, the next year Loach made Sweet Sixteen, whose sympathy for youth recalls the raw sensitivity of his long-ago, fine (if somewhat overrated) Kes (1970). The title of the film may sound namby-pamby and John Hughes-ish, but Sweet Sixteen is about the rough lives of teenagers in economically depressed Glasgow, Scotland. Except for a lame finish (more about which later), it’s a bracing piece of work.

The protagonist is Liam, a fifteen-year-old fatherless boy whose mother, Jean, is in prison, having taken the fall for her drug-pushing boyfriend, Stan. Liam remains very attached to his mother; while counting the days to her release, he plunges himself into a criminal world in order to come up with lodging for himself and his mother in a more pleasant part of the city. In the meantime, his mutual support system principally consists of his older sister, Chantelle, and his best friend, Pinball. When upon her release Jean chooses to return to Stan rather than remain with him, Liam stabs Stan. The police are after him. “What a waste,” Chantelle tells her brother over the phone, reminding him that it’s his sixteenth birthday.

The script is by Paul Laverty, who has written other Loach films,** including Bread and Roses (2000), in which gangly Adrien Brody superbly plays a green unionist—“the organizer” before he himself got organized. Above-board jobs are hard to come by in Liam’s neighborhood, though, and kids spew a steady stream of vulgar speech. Using words like fuck and cunt is like breathing air to them—this, a measure of their keen sense of having already been written off by society. Liam and Pinball are at loose ends, and their hopeless, violent milieu sucks them in.

Loach’s elastic style brings a raggedy naturalism to his films, melding documentary and fictional elements. Watching Sweet Sixteen, I got caught up in the young people’s lives, and this divided my perspective between that of an objective outsider and someone who could empathize with their plight, no matter how much some of their choices appalled me. There is a harrowing passage that represents a kind of terrible turning-point in Liam’s life where, as his initiation into an adult gang, he is charged with the mission to stab somebody to death in a bar. Liam agonizes over whether he should do this but in the end comes to what we would consider the wrong decision. He so wants to be something in a world that tells him he is nothing. It’s a moment in the film that, at least in me, created an awesome ambivalence; I wanted to hold Liam back from committing the murder, and at the same time I was entirely with him, hoping only that he would get the job done quickly. Loach’s film stirs up powerful, conflicted emotions.

Eventually Liam must face a more poignant dilemma, when he is charged with the mission of killing Pinball, who has been, he explains, like a brother to him. Loach errs by relegating the resolution of this conflict to offscreen action. Some will say he is being subtle; I found the treatment evasive.

This brings us to the finish of the film, with Liam on the lam after stabbing Stan and thus, in all probability, ruining his own life. Loach badly miscalculates, apparently not knowing how to end this film. He follows Liam to the seashore to create an image of him as trapped, having no place really to go. This homage to the end of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) threw me out of the movie. How utterly facile—and distracting, given that Liam’s prior reference points had been kids in real life, such as in the urban environment in which I find myself, not Antoine Doinel, a wonderful teenaged character in a wonderful film. Moreover, Loach’s treatment is selfconscious in the extreme. In an effort not to cross the fuzzy line between hommage and plagiarism, Loach has Liam shot from the back, not from the front, so that we don’t see his face, as we do Antoine’s. What a stage-managed, fastidious finish to an otherwise urgent, pulsating film.

As usual with Loach, the acting is terrific. Martin Compston, who plays Liam to the bone, won acting awards from the British film academy, the British Independent Film Awards, and the London Critics Circle. Even better, in my opinion, is Annmarie Fulton as Chantelle, who is torn between her devotion to her brother and her knowing her mother only too well.

Sweet Sixteen won the Independent British Film Award as best film, and Loach won unanimously at the Valladolid International Film Festival and also won the international critics’ prize at the European Film Awards. Laverty won for his screenplay at Cannes. Barry Ackroyd, Loach’s color cinematographer, won at Valladolid and at the Brothers Manaki International Film Festival.

* I wrote this piece before Loach made The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), which is greater than The Navigators and which won Loach the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

** Laverty also (brilliantly) wrote The Wind That Shakes the Barley.


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