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Sweet sixteen

Threat advisory: Elevated - Significant risk of entertaining activities

Movie propaganda

Liam (Martin Compston) is looking forward to the day his mum will be sprung from prison (coincidentally on his 16th birthday, hence the bitterly ironic title), where she's been consigned by her drug habit and some illegal shenanigans with her criminal boyfriend Stan (Gary McCormack). Liam hates Stan, and the feeling is mutual. In his effort to pry her loose from Stan's evil influence, Liam dreams of providing his mother and himself a new place to live in a furnished trailer with a view, "a place to start all over again." The problem is that to finance his dream, he is forced, paradoxically, to get more and more deeply enmeshed in the underworld that he's trying to escape.

His cohort in crime is his best friend Pinball (William Ruane), a devil-may-care hothead who is led, through jealously, to eventually compromise Liam in the most fundamental ways. Kicked out of Stan's house, Liam is forced to move in with his sister Chantelle (Annmarie Fulton), a 17-year-old single parent who's estranged from their mother, and they begin to dream of becoming a family again. The plot thickens, unresolvable dilemmas are created, and dreams prove illusory.

Persons of interest

  • Martin Compston .... Liam
  • William Ruane .... Pinball
  • Annmarie Fulton .... Chantelle
  • Michelle Abercromby .... Suzanne
  • Michelle Coulter .... Jean
  • Gary McCormack .... Stan
  • Tommy McKee .... Rab
  • Paul Laverty .... Screenwriter
  • Ken Loach .... Director

Cinematic intelligence sources

  • Awards and film festivals:
    • Adelaide 2003: Screening
    • British Independent Film Awards 2002: Won: Best Film, Most Promising Newcomer (Martin Compston); nominee: Best Director, Best Screenplay, Most Promising Newcomer (William Ruane)
    • Cannes Film Festival 2002: Won: Best Screenplay; nominee: Golden Palm (Ken Loach)
    • Santa Barbara 2003: Grand Jury prize
    • Toronto International Film Festival 2002: Screening
  • Production notes
  • Sweet sixteen QuickTime movie trailers
  • NB: Scottish English language dialogue with English language subtitles
  • Studios and distributors:

Intelligence analyst

Agent Provocateur Alexander Feld

Theatrical report

Ken Loach returns to his socially conscious English kitchen sink roots with Sweet sixteen. This, his newest film, is an evocation of time and place, and a cultural examination of life, that of the underclasses of Greenock, a Clydeside dump outside of Glasgow.

15-year-old Liam (played admirably here by 17-year-old footballer Martin Compston), an 8th-year school dropout, is an energetic, two-bit hustler of stolen cigarettes. His no-hoper mother is in the slammer, due to be released one day short of his 16th birthday. Liam is determined from that day forward to have what he believes to be a normal life and bugger the odds. He resolves to get enough money together to move her out of her council flat and into a trailer, albeit with a reasonably scenic view. This will require, among other things, £6000.

Not exactly easy, especially when the people that surround you could give genocide credibility. But Liam, if restricted, is ambitious. Mum's scumbag boyfriend is a micro-dealer and Liam, egged on by his best friend, the pathetic Pinball (beautifully realised by William Ruane) steals a decent stash and elbows into the smack business. He is promptly making what he thinks is real money... hell, he's 15, after all. He cuts in on other dealer's turfs, passes a Goodfellas-like initiation and is adopted by first-class mobsters; the cash rolls in, people get pissed off, relationships break down, corpses appear. One can easily envisage the ensuing maelstrom; Sweet sixteen is nothing if not predictable. The downward spiral to the dénouement, on Liam's birthday, is told with confronting, if slow-moving, realism.

Cinema is all too rarely used as a medium for social change, or even social consciousness. Three generations after John Ford's seminal The grapes of wrath, can you name one dozen "conscious" films on that level? Loach's work has, for all its weaknesses, admirably attempted to fill in the gap, although none of his films really make the mark. His first major effort, Cathy come home (1965) directly affected British law regarding the homeless. The portrait of a teenager in trouble, revisited here, is the theme of his best film, Kes (1969). He continued at length in this "socio" vein, but his film forays into politics have often left a lingering bad taste, to say nothing of some second-rate films. Fatherland (1986) outwardly pits the then totalitarian East against the capitalist West of Germany, as seen through, of all things, the music industry. Carla's song (1996) plods into similar preachy territory; a refugee from Nicaragua winds up in Glasgow and reveals her previous agonies. (Based upon how he portrays Glasgow, I'd opt for Managua and the death squads). His best recent work was probably the sentimental My name is Joe, in which two Glasgow thirtysomethings, at the bottom of the food chain, find love. His 11-minute segment in 11'09"01, a reminder that 11 September 2001 was the 28th anniversary of General Pinochet's coup of the Allende government in Chile, is admirably constructed, but is the sort of sophomoric political rant, in this case rabidly anti-American, that is best left to film students.

Loach's strength is really as a director of actors, and this is the power of this film. (He would probably be an excellent theatre director.) Many are untrained newcomers, from the depressed areas of Western Scotland, and many are probably too young to even see this film in the theatre. Loach turns up the energy to a fair level of teenage exhilaration. These kids have brains, street smarts, guts and dash: when robbing his sleeping grandfather, a complete degenerate, Liam remembers to pinch the old fart's dentures for good measure. The short segment when the kids really have things rolling (they commandeer a take-away pizza joint as a front for Vespa smack deliveries) has urgency and thrill. There's real talent here - in addition to Compston and Ruane, watch out for Annmarie Fulton, another newcomer, as Liam's sister Chantelle. This is one of the strongest performances in the picture; she is clearly an actress of inherent talent.

In an exceptionally strong scene, Liam, new to the dealing game, is jumped and robbed by a trio of thugs. He audaciously and admirably claws back his supply, punching his way to dignity. This is a pretty common scene in flicks involving drugs and mobsters, but the effect here is unique, due to some strong camera work and the strength of Compston's no-holds-barred performance. It is not only touching - for one brief moment, we have cinema.

Sweet sixteen is scripted and acted in the broadest dialect possible. (It was decided in the UK to show subtitles for the first fifteen minutes only, thus jarring the audience into realising that this too is English. Well, barely. In the USA and Australia, it is shown with subtitles throughout, which is a welcome bonus. It only accentuates the cultural alienation.)

Loach's work is indeed honest and natural, but it is far from cinematic. There are minimal camera tricks, nominal music and one wonders if a cinematographer was even employed. Nonetheless, with anticipation and shattered hopes, he does indeed convey what the world must be to a teenager. The adults (drug mandarins, bank managers, Liam's odious elders) seem as if they are from a different planet; the film is so clearly intended to be from the teenager's perspective. We are shown with care and skill the dreams, inanities, absurdities, body language, filthy mouths and wonderful humour of 15-year-olds. Accolades to the three teenagers in the leading roles; their performances will no doubt keep the bums on the seats until the end.

In terms of social consciousness, Sweet sixteen hits all its marks. Something must be done. We have known that the rusted hell of industrial Scotland has existed for quite some time; Loach reminds us that, under the onslaught of drugs, entire generations are lost. However, at the end of the day, Loach as a filmmaker, does not fully serve his theme. Although it is welcoming to see aspects of the realist tradition of De Sica, Truffaut and the like alive outside of Iran and China... all things considered, Sweet sixteen has the pace of a second-rate BBC documentary, and less of an impact.

A direct contrast, and of course unfair comparison, can be made with Trainspotting and Requiem for a dream. Here, two films, one excellent and the other remarkable, give us confronting worlds of heroin-addicted kids, the marginalised and the hopeless, in the grandest style of broad, exciting, confronting cinema. One does not exit these films saying, "something must be done"; one can barely speak. As the credits roll on Sweet sixteen, as Liam celebrates his birthday, we do indeed say, "something must be done." About pics like these.

Security censorship classification

MA 15+ (Adult themes, high level coarse language)

Surveillance time

106 minutes (1:46 hours)

Not for public release in Australia before date

Film: 27 March 2003
DVD rental: 1 October 2003
VHS rental: 1 October 2003

Cinema surveillance images

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Production notes
"The genesis of Sweet sixteen may have been back with the making of My name is Joe," says writer Paul Laverty. "When you're imagining a story there are often dozens of characters screaming for attention, all saying 'me, me, me, me'. We can't feed them all otherwise the story will collapse. But there was one persistent character who would not give up or shut up. He demanded our attention." That voice became the character of Liam.

"Paul and I made Bread and roses in LA and thought it would be good to do another film on home ground," explains Ken Loach. "We went on a trip at Paul's instigation to Greenock which is a town just along the Clyde from Glasgow. The scenery is spectacular, which is more than can be said for the job opportunities since the shipyards closed."

Laverty began his task by spending lots of time with young people. "For some time I'd been talking with Ken about doing another very personal story; about how one young person tries to make sense of his life. It's as simple and as complex as that. Friends, family and community connect or smash up against each other in endlessly complex patterns. Liam is at a delicate point in his life. Some things just don't fit, though he is absolutely determined to use his considerable talent and cheek to make them do so."

"What struck me," says Laverty, "from talking to lots of carers who work with children (either in children's homes with foster carers or even secure accommodation) was that, no matter how chaotic the family home, most were still determined to make contact with their mother. There's something extra concentrated about adolescence. There's a special energy, which can be exhilarating or explosive. Fragility and often a wild courage, even if misplaced, can sit easily side by side. We were keen to try and capture some of those qualities in our story."

"During auditions we worked with hundreds of young people in sports clubs, schools and community groups," explains researcher Pam Marshall. "A lot of the teenagers had never acted before and were quite nervous. I was amazed at how they surprised themselves. Everyone was able to jump in and have a go. I don't think they expected to get caught up in the improvisation. That was very exciting."

The sense of place is probably stronger in Greenock and Port Glasgow than many towns. The river itself has such presence. Its shipbuilding history, which once provided work for tens of thousands of men, is implicit; monster-sized cranes still dwarf he new call centres built along her banks. The wind from the west, the open expanse of water and sharp rising hills of the town also dictate a tough windswept climate. In his highest and lowest moments, Liam is drawn to the river. It's where he can dream and let his imagination run wild; and where he has to reflect on the choices he's made which will change his life forever.

Although Liam's story is told in a town with a very particular personality it will have echoes for many beyond these shores.

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