Adolescence has rarely looked bleaker than in Ken Loach‘s grimy, 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.
Sweet 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 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 her odious, drug-dealing boyfriend to commit crimes which could extend her sentence.
One day, 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 purchase the caravan for his mother after she gets out of prison. However, this is the world of Ken Loach. Thus, Liam’s attempts to give himself and his mother a new beginning quickly spin out of control.
Sweet Sixteen is an occasionally riveting film. One of 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 authentic, almost improvisational in nature. The dreary, 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 hate everything aside from their mammas (see Pesci in Goodfellas or Cagney in White Heat). 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 understood how the character’s inability to assimilate to a workplace forced him to other outlets for financial gain.
In Sweet Sixteen we understand that Liam is a lout, but that’s where our understanding ends. 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 he never attempts to procure mainstream employment? The film leaves a viewer wanting just a bit more.
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 always have an idea where this might be going. Still, Loach’s docua-drama naturalism makes Sweet Sixteen into a powerful cinematic look at lives that are forgotten about or ignored. It is an examination of a one person’s path to adulthood, a journey that is often, at best, bittersweet.