Ken Loach is one of the most consistent directors making movies today–consistent in vision, consistent in his progressive convictions and consistent in film artistry. That he manages to continue making small films of first quality and unwavering honesty, films of the sort that are little valued in the megabuck movie industry, is nothing short of miraculous. Films like Riff Raff and Ladybird, Ladybirdmovingly explore the difficult lives of working class people in a unique semi-documentary style. Loach has often used nonprofessional actors and improvised dialogue in his quest to project an unvarnished slice of life onto the screen.
More accessible and dramatically more forcefully structured are his more recent films, such as the woefully underseen My Name is Joe, and the Los Angeles-set Bread and Roses, in both of which Loach has teamed up with screenwriter Paul Laverty. Together they have made Sweet Sixteen, dead-on in Loach territory and one of the few memorable films released so far this year in the United States.
Set in a town near Glasgow, the speech is so heavily Glaswegian-accented that the film has been subtitled for American release. Loach has once again used a cast of mostly inexperienced actors; he seems to have a special facility for drawing fresh and expert performances from these novices.
The story centers on fifteen year old Liam (Martin Compston) whose mother, Jean (Michelle Coulter) is in prison, having taken a rap for her drug-dealing boyfriend, Stan (Gary McCormack, The Acid House). Liam lives with thuggish Stan and his equally culpable grandfather (Tommy McKee), but when he refuses to cooperate in their attempt to smuggle drugs to Jean for her to sell in prison, Stan beats him up and they throw him out. Liam goes to live with his older sister, Chantelle (Annmarie Fulton), a single mother, protective of her small son, who has otherwise removed herself from the family, recognizing that they are intractably caught up in lives of violence and crime. At a more intimate emotional level, Chantelle understands that Jean’s commitment to her children is marginal at best; they are unwanted–a judgment than young Liam, hungry for a mother’s love, cannot accept.
From dealing in cut-price (presumably stolen) cigarettes with his sidekick, Pinball (William Ruane), Liam’s progress to more serious crime is the first move in a seemingly inexorable slide into ever riskier, ever more serious situations. He thinks he can protect his mother after she is released from jail, providing a nice place for her to live so that she will not return to Stan. Motivated by the need for the money to carry out his plan, he gets more deeply involved, seduced into being a dealer for a crime-boss. A scheme to have pizza delivery boys provide a wider menu to customers gives new meaning to an order of pizza and coke.
Liam, as played by Compston, is an enormously likable kid–bright, loyal, spunky, and emotionally needy. Add his youthful good looks and amiable smile and he’s a natural to win and then break audience hearts as he does all the wrong things for all the right reasons. Laverty’s tight and compelling script sustains strong dramatic momentum as it keeps Liam at the center of a plot that moves along smartly with some interesting twists, all of them ultimately revealing of his character and his destiny. Sweet Sixteen is at once a well spun story, a poignant and moving character study, and an indictment of contemporary society’s indifference to the plight of the underprivileged.