Ken Loach has, for my money, created some of the greatest films to ever come out of Great Britain, or anywhere for that matter. His inimitable talent for rawly depicting the realities of life when you’re part of the British precariat is informed by love and anger, the erudite director having his finger on the pulse of Britain’s social ills to the extent that he has been rousingly cogent on the likes of Question Time and Newsnight. There have been institutional apologists who lambast his work as socialist propaganda (I, Daniel Blake certainly set a cat among the Tory pigeons), and it’s legitimately embarrassing that some people swallow the notion that ‘Broken Britain’ was created by people who have no money or power, and that the wealthy lobbyists on the highest rung are somehow powerless to stop it. But that’s right-wing poppycock for you.
One of his greatest works, 2002’s Sweet Sixteen, is a poignant and ferocious examination of growing pains, frighteningly dogged ambition and determination, the struggle to maintain integrity in an environment where amorality and callousness reign supreme and how the people expected to love us unconditionally can sometimes hurt us the most. The script by long-time Loach collaborator Paul Laverty is highly intelligent, moving and brutal, and seamlessly punctuated by welcome moments of authentic levity.
Liam (Martin Compston, in an astonishingly good debut with no prior acting experience) is a 15-year-old Scottish tearaway weeks away from the titular birthday milestone. Living in the impoverished port town of Greenock, Liam and his friends are perennial school truants who make a small income from illegally trafficking cigarettes and have fun acting as a constant nuisance to the local police. It would be too strong to refer to them as horrible little shits, more appropriate to state that they’re a cheeky pain in the arse. With his quicksilver-tempered best friend Pinball (William Ruane) constantly at his side, Liam & co. try to make the best of what they have while seemingly deprived of any kind of future.
Liam lives in a dilapidated council flat with his grandfather Rab (Tommy McKee) and his mother’s boyfriend Stan (Gary McCormack). Stan is a cruel and offensive bully and reputed local heroin dealer, and in conjunction with Rab also having a nasty and antipathetic personality, it doesn’t bode well for Liam having a stable or pleasant home life. Liam’s mother Jean (Michelle Coulter) is currently incarcerated for drug-related offences that were actually Stan’s doing, and the two older men have taken to forcing Liam to act as a mule for smuggling drugs into the prison for distribution. When Liam refuses to comply, they brutally beat him and throw him out of the flat permanently.
Unwavering in his love and loyalty toward his mother, Liam and Pinball conspire to steal one of Stan’s consignments as revenge and proceed to make a tidy little profit from it. With Jean due for release in time for his birthday, Liam sees great lucrative potential in short-term drug-dealing and plans to use the money to buy his mother a coming home present and also endeavours to re-strengthen the familial bond between Jean and his older sister Chantelle (Annmarie Fulton). A young mum, Chantelle has cut all ties with Jean and Rab, believing them both to be abjectly selfish wasters who near enough ruined her life, and is determined to give her son Callum the love and stability that they were bereft of as children. Chantelle loves Liam but chides him for his blind devotion to Jean and recent foray into illegal entrepreneurialism, but nothing shall deter our young hero from his goal.
In the game of contraband, it’s only a matter of time before competitors with more money and power than you take exception to your depriving them of potential capital. In Sweet Sixteen, this problem arises in the form of Douglas (Jon Morrison), a wealthy and well-connected local drug lord with a retinue of thugs and some profitable leisure centres as a front operation. Douglas has got the hump with Liam and Pinball (especially Pinball, as he can never stop being a gormless smartarse) for brazenly selling smack on his turf, but he elects to only give them a bit of a frightener and some roughing up.
Always on the lookout for new talent, Douglas can see that Liam is essentially fearless with lunatic perseverance, but that he’s no moron either. In a disconcerting bargain of Faustian proportions, Douglas offers Liam a big payday in exchange for selling his product and taking on additional ‘enforcer’ duties. Seeing this as a serendipitous opportunity to reunite his family and bring them comfort in life, Liam accepts, and so begins his journey into the character-changing abyss that is Greenock’s underworld. Learning too late that having anything resembling a heart in this milieu means that you’re f***ed, Liam must witness and participate in the mercenary brutality that ensures men like Douglas keep sitting pretty, the people who love him powerless in their horror at seeing the foolhardy teen become increasingly hard-nosed, angry and unpredictable.
With a well-judged, tender score by composer George Fenton and Barry Ackroyd’s earthy cinematography that makes the film feel like a socially realistic adrenaline rush, Sweet Sixteen is characteristic of Loach’s comprehensive approach to the dilemmas of working-class existence. Compston portrays Liam with an enviable vitality, a ‘chipper and cheeky sort of chap’ in archaic parlance. Undaunted by his circumstances, he is confident, quick-witted and refuses to back down in a confrontation. McCormack cuts a believably loathsome figure as Stan, but we can only admire Liam’s mocking dismissal of him as a loser because he has bigger fish to fry. The interpersonal relationships of our protagonist, particularly with sister Chantelle, are palpable and note-perfect, immersing the viewer in complex intimacies that are by turns warm and painful.
Although ostensibly ‘Big Bads’, the film’s heavy mob that eventually employs Liam are essentially indifferent money-makers, preferring expediency in light of potential problems and ultimately wanting the operation to keep ticking over nicely without making anything of a show about it. The true evil in the picture manifests itself in the capricious behaviours of those that Liam cares for and believes he can trust, and, without spoiling anything, it conveys a sad truth in the fact that Chantelle, who constantly reprimands him, is the only person who could be cited as being altruistically concerned for Liam’s welfare in any genuine sense. He’s only going to be 16 in a matter of weeks, but he is going to have to grow up faster in that time than any person should.
Ken Loach has always been one of my favourite filmmakers, and Sweet Sixteen is a paragon of his sentiments and abilities. It’s a film that makes you care an awful lot about its characters, ensuring a visceral experience during the scenes where they are in danger (one particular ‘initiation’ sequence involving Liam and Douglas’ goons is insanely anxiety-inducing). It’s funny, profane, beautiful, sad and exhilarating, and features outstanding performances from acting veterans and Greenock locals who had never recited a line in their life. If you haven’t seen this one before, now you know you must.