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Sweet Sixteen

October 8, 2013

Sweet Sixteen (2002)
Director: Ken Loach
Actors: Martin Compston, William Ruane, Annmarie Fulton

sweet six

Synopsis: Liam (Martin Compston) is a delinquent teenager in a depressed part of Greenock on the River Clyde. Building all his hopes on his mother’s forthcoming release from prison, Liam becomes a drug dealer to fund the better life he plans for his family. But his lifestyle comes with plenty of compromises…

Review: Just sometimes, the work of Ken Loach can feel a touch didactic, schematic and sentimental – understandable by-products of his social conscience, political agenda and the sheer empathy he possesses for his characters. In Sweet Sixteen though his vision is pure, and he has fashioned a near perfect, crystal-clear, achingly true portrait of a young man’s despairing attempts to better his life, but coming up against social obstructions both visible and invisible. It’s a film the genius Dardenne brothers would be proud of.

Often underrated as a visual director and artist, one of Loach’s prime triumphs in Sweet Sixteen is just how beautiful a film it is. There are some stunning vistas of his Greenock milieu, capturing the sheer dead-end deprivation of its slate-grey, derelict housing estates versus its scenic situation over the Clyde estuary and subtle backgrounding of the presumably now-defunct shipyards – which offer some subliminal social commentary on the generation of people now living in this area. There is simply nothing that rings false about this film: there are no named actors – every face, accent and emotion seeps authenticity – nothing diluted for a bourgeois audience.

And far from submitting falsely to a neat, three-act structure with simplified ending, the closing image of Sweet Sixteen is appropriately anti-cathartic. Teenage protagonist Liam is penned in on the Clyde coastline, seemingly a spent force. He’s tried so unbelievably hard to fashion a life for himself and his family that is ‘optimistic’ but the sheer plethora of obstacles both literal (his junkie mother, his provocative, no-good step-father and grandfather, his drug-dealer associates) and institutional (police, education and social welfare play no factor in his life – the drugs business seems the only route forward) have trapped him. (October 2013)

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