Sweet Sixteen (18)

Review by Jack Foley

A FRIEND once remarked that ‘there’s tough and then there’s Ken Loach’, as the British director has carved out something of a reputation for churning out gritty, bleak and uncompromising thrillers.

His latest, Sweet Sixteen, is another intensely personal look at the harsh realities of life on the street, as seen through the eyes of a 15-year-old boy (Martin Compston’s Liam) who turns to drug-dealing in a bid to secure a better home for himself and his mother, when she gets out of prison.

Set in the small Scottish town of Greenock, just along the Clyde from Glasgow, the movie is as unflinching as we have come to expect from Loach, while also draining in the way that it refuses to pull its punches or give over to a happy ending.

Yet for all of its bleakness and bad language, there is much to admire, not least the performances from a cast comprised largely of first-time actors, specifically chosen by Loach to lend the film an even more realistic feel

Compston, in particular, is a revelation as the hard-as-nails Liam with a heart of gold who always manages to come back smiling no matter what life throws at him, or how big the beating. The 17-year-old footballer, who is actually a first-team member for Morton FC, in the Scottish Second Division, was chosen from a local school after months of searching and confesses that it was his father who persuaded him to go to the audition.

The movie could so easily have suffered had Liam not come across as sympathetic or believable, yet his plight is made all the more heartbreaking by the intensity of Compston’s honest, raw performance; which helps to make the movie’s pay-off all the more devastating.

Elsewhere, Michelle Coulter, as Liam's mother, has worked in drug rehabilitation projects for the past 10 years but never acted, while Annmarie Fulton, who excels as Liam’s sister, has only recently completed a HND qualification in acting. William Ruane, as Liam’s loose-cannon best friend, Pinball, is actually still at school, but his scenes with Compston trigger all the right emotions.

Sweet Sixteen also makes the most of its Northern locations, creating a setting which is, at times, as bleak and unforgiving as Liam’s predicament, while the nods to the hopelessness of certain social situations (drug dealing and its impact, life on estates, etc) are well observed.

The movie is unlikely to find an audience with the mainstream crowd, given its hard-as-nails approach and thick Scottish accents (which can render it difficult to decipher), but it is worth checking out for any fans of the director, or for those who really want to get their teeth into something.

Loach’s films may, ultimately, be difficult to like, but they are impossible to ignore.

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