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Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2003

Rays of hope shine meekly in Loach land

Sweet Sixteen

Rating: * * * *
Director: Ken Loach
Running time: 106 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

"Sweet Sixteen" laughs at the bitter irony of its title -- there's precious little that's sweet in the life of protagonist Liam as he navigates the working class underworld of Greenock, Scotland, in the weeks before his 16th birthday. His mom is in prison, his stepfather Stan is a lowlife loser and his granddad is a vicious creep with a filthy mouth. Having survived on the proceeds of stolen smokes since the age of 7, what Liam wants most at this point is a warm, normal life with his mother (once she gets out), his older sister and her baby boy, in a trailer home he picked out himself. But in order to finance their dream home, he must first sink deeper into the world he is desperately trying to escape by kowtowing to the local gangster and becoming a drug dealer.

News photo
Martin Compston in "Sweet Sixteen"

So goes the story of "Sweet Sixteen," winner of the Best Screenplay Award at last year's Cannes film festival. Directed and cowritten by Ken Loach, "Sweet Sixteen" recalls "Kes," the Loach classic of 33 years back, which also traced the fate of a boy as he made the spiral descent into family breakup, violence and destruction. Over the years Loach's message hasn't changed: He indicts a social system that punishes its workers and rewards the moneyed; he rues the adults who are more childish than their children and the damage they inflict as a result; and he rages against a world seemingly divided into the addicts and the suppliers.

Loach's gift is that he can take these unpopular themes and weave them into a tale that's neither pretty nor candy-coated but still end up somehow as entertainment. No matter how painful the story, he provides little pockets of humor and relief. "Sweet Sixteen" is in no way easy on the palate, but it still leaves a faintly sweet aftertaste, thanks mostly to the hardy innocence of the hero, who remains strangely untarnished by his hellish surroundings.

Loach also shows an uncanny skill in assembling his cast, usually working without stars or even experienced actors in key roles. For this film, 17-year-old Martin Compston was handpicked to play Liam. Compston was a Scottish lad with zero experience, but he stands in front of the camera with what can only be described as natural-born street-kid grace. In one scene Liam is beaten up (which seems to be the story of his life) by some toughs who also take his precious store of carefully wrapped heroin. Bloodied and broken, Liam goes after the toughs, demanding his stash back. He is beaten again but stands his ground, like a boxer who refuses to go down for the count. Finally, he ambushes them in a stairwell and freaks them out with his zombie-like resilience -- obviously his determination to finance a home with mum triumphs over broken bones.

Typical of a Loach tale, Liam's mum, Jean (Michelle Coulter), just isn't up to her son's rosy expectations. Unable to free herself from her scum husband or his drugs, Jean chooses to betray Liam and his efforts to give her a home. Her estranged daughter, Chantelle (Annmarie Fulton), who is a single parent at 17, has given up on Jean a long time ago and urges Liam to do the same.

Chantelle is the one ray of hope -- a responsible and loving girl who is taking a computing course and raising her baby in a council flat. Liam has plenty of opportunities to abandon hope for mum and throw in his lot with Chantelle, but he's trapped in a dream of his own invention, unwilling to admit that it has turned into a nightmare.

Less typical of Loach is the absence of political or authority figures that represent the clear-cut opposition. In his last film, "Bread and Roses," for example, there was a clear us-against-them paradigm at work (Hispanic janitors vs. wealthy building owners in Los Angeles) which left no doubt as to where the injustice lay and what had to be done about it. In "Sweet Sixteen," the distinctions are much hazier. There are no teachers, politicians or affluent businessmen (and only one brief, comic encounter with a policeman).

The working classes, who in "Bread and Roses" were united by a common goal and motivated by a strong urge to help each other out, are seen here as ruthless, selfish, narrow and vindictive, their relationships characterized primarily by abuse. Even Liam's best friend, Pinball (William Ruane), triggers disaster out of petty jealousy and spite, for which Liam must take the rap.

Symbolic of this is when Liam is told by the gangsters that initiation into their world means carrying out a ritual killing. Desparate and scared, he practices knifing a man by stabbing some cardboard boxes, the blade making ominous thudding noises in the dark. In Liam's mind, this horrific deed isn't at odds with the reason he's doing it in the first place, which is to have a home so he can live with mum in crime-free happiness.

In the end, Liam finds himself stranded in a sea of catastrophe with nowhere to turn -- when Chantelle calls him on his cell phone and asks where he is, his answer is tragically sincere: "I . . . don't know."

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