Situated near Scotland's lush lowlands on the River Clyde some 30 miles
south of Glasgow, Greenock is a former shipbuilding town that no longer
holds much economic promise for its young people. A number of menial
jobs remain (like telemarketing), but the only paths to wealth for most
Greenock teens were through football (soccer) and drug dealing—a grim reality that belies the idyllic landscape. Such is the setting of Ken Loach's sensitive coming of age portrait, Sweet Sixteen—a title that similarly disguises its underlying darkness. This is hardly a "sweet" narrative; it's as gritty and tough as its Scottish landscape. Certain to spark comparisons to Trainspotting, Loach's more realistic treatment is far less frenetic, as his low budget film casts primarily inexperienced locals to get the proper flavor.
Beginning on a hopeful note, 15 year old protagonist Liam (Martin Compston) eagerly peers at Saturn through his telescope and instructs a few youngsters how to find it. Coping with busted dysfunctional families, he and his best buddy Pinball (William Ruane) must fend for themselves, so they charge fees to gaze at the heavens. Liam loves astronomy; he's a dreamer who fancies purchasing a trailer on the town's outskirts to provide his mother when she gets out of prison on her latest drug rap. He also wants to get her away from her current dull-witted, drug dealing boyfriend Stan (Gary McCormack), who has taken residence in the family flat. But in reality, Liam really seeks mother love and denies the more realistic perspective of his sister Chantelle (AnnMarie Fulton) that their mother is incapable of giving even a heartfelt "cuddle."
The natural leader of his peers—energetic, creative, bold, and entrepreneurial, Liam has sold “things” ever since he was a wee lad. He soon realizes that selling black market cigarettes in the local pub won't get him close to his dream home and turns his gaze towards more lucrative schemes. After intercepting Stan's incoming drug deal, Liam and Pinball must make life-changing decisions that will test their friendship and forever change their futures. While the plot involving everyone from punk thugs to sophisticated rich drug lords follows fairly predictable patterns, the film's strengths come from its simple tapestry, from the sincerity of its memorable characters, and its universality. Despite the thick Scottish accents, this coming of age story could have been set in any English speaking city with an underclass.
Undoubtedly Loach has a political agenda, but he refrains from overt preaching (a la Oliver Stone)—instead, allowing the scrip to progressively unfold and help us understand how kids in this situation can logically turn to crime. Society turns its back on Liam and Pinball, so they seek the only means they have to survive. Both have successfully avoided turning into junkies, but they recognize the local market forces. Selling drugs to them is no worse than selling cigarettes, only requiring more savvy to avoid getting beat into a bloody pulp (or worse).
Loach took great pains to cast Sweet Sixteen, auditioning hundreds of young people, and the hard work pays off handsomely, resulting in a film that feels fresh and true to life. Compston especially proves completely believable in his screen debut, and he carries the film firmly on his shoulders. Showing uncanny range, Compston reveals his emotions naturally and dominates the screen with the same charisma that elevates him within his on screen peer group—it's impossible to not be drawn into his character. Little surprise that he has landed a number of roles since this initial appearanc—interestingly he is listed in a new production headed by both Loach and legendary Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, famous for his provocative minimalist films that probe deeply into individual and societal psyches.
Hollywood has manufactured a number of coming of age films of varying quality, yet it's difficult to think of one that tops this powerful character study. Fortunately, it's now available on DVD so it has a chance to find an appropriate audience despite its R rating (for frequent coarse language). Be sure to turn on the English language subtitles since the accents make the dialogue much easier to follow. Most young teens will be able to see beyond the profanities and recognize the painful truths that Loach layers into the production. One thing is certain—they will remember the film for a long time.