Adolescence has rarely looked bleaker than in Ken Loach‘s grimy and grim coming of age film from 2002, the ironically titled, Sweet Sixteen. Bizarrely described on its Netflix casing as a “…heartwarming…” story, Loach’s film is a powerful albeit somewhat conventional portrait of blighted lives, hopelessness and the allure of criminality in a crumbling, washed-out Scotland
Sixteen is Liam’s story, a 15-year-old on the verge of adulthood. He spends his days gallivanting around town with his gang of miscreant friends (each with a humorous nickname, such as Pinball) avoiding any real responsibility and selling ”fags” (known to us Yankees as cigarettes) for quick cash. However, life is far from rosy for Liam. His mother is spending time in the big house and he is bullied by his mother’s odious drug-dealing boyfriend to commit crimes which could extend her sentence.
One day, while doing a load of nothing with Pinball, Liam comes across a caravan positioned directly by the water. He soon hatches a plan to enter the drug dealing business himself in order to earn enough money to purchase the caravan for his mother after she gets out of prison. However, as this story does exist in the world of Loach, Liam’s attempts to give himself and his mother a shot at a new beginning quickly spin out of control and tragedy lies just around the corner.
Sweet Sixteen is a very strong and occasionally riveting film. One of the its major strengths (which is a characteristic of most Loach efforts) is the believability of the actors. Loach is able to coax terrific performances out of all of the film’s major roles, especially Martin Compson as the main character, Liam. The interplay between the actors, which is driven by Paul Laverty‘s excellent, obscenity filled dialogue, feels extremely authentic, almost improvisational in nature. The dreary, almost banal settings of Liam’s environment, captured through the strikingly un-flashy photography of Loach regular, Barry Akroyd, reinforces the film’s thematic focus on the inability of its characters to move out of their disenfranchised stagnation.
The film’s main problem is its lack of innovation with its storyline; essentially, we’ve seen all this before. In many ways Liam is just another entry in a long line of thugs who cultivate misanthropic attitudes towards everyone and everything, aside from their mammas. Also, Liam isn’t given the same level of development that defined the protagonist from the superior Loach effort, Raining Stones. In that film we understand how the character’s inherent inability to not assimilate into the structures of a workplace forced him to turn to less mainstream outlets for financial gain.
In Sixteen, we understand that Liam is a lout, but what makes him a lout? What is the film saying about the condition of Scotland’s lower-class youth? How can we fully grasp the tragedy of Liam’s predicament when the story never depicts him even attempting to enter to some sort of socially approved vocation? The film left wanting just a bit more.
Final Verdict: Sweet Sixteen combines a feeling of urgent improvisation in its performances with an aesthetic portrait of a country that feels glaringly devoid of prospects. Many of the film’s sequences are filled with a crackling vitality yet, at the same time, feel somewhat expected. You kind of always have an idea where this might be going. Still, Loach’s docua-drama naturalism makes Sixteen into a powerful cinematic look at lives that, quite often, are forgotten about or ignored. It is an examination of a one person’s path to adulthood, which is bittersweet and filled with hard knocks.