Sweet Sixteen

July, 2003, Drama

England's Ken Loach has been making waves in British television and film for decades and has a number of critically-acclaimed movies to his credit, (Kes, Ladybird, Ladybird, Poor Cow, etc.) that have focused, with excoriating fury, on the societal injustices faced by working-class people throughout Great Britain. Frequently using inexperienced, (often first-time) actors and gritty scripts filled with the profanity and vulgarity that accurately reflect the reality of blue-collar life, Loach has built a reputation as a director who's primary interest isn't box-office success, but rather getting it right. Often opinionated and always polemical, Loach challenges his audiences in ways that few other directors do. The result is a body of work that may frighten or offend, but never bore. And so it is here.

In Sixteen, Loach traces the downward trajectory of Liam, a likable 15 year-old Scottish kid from the projects who's father is long gone and who's mum is doing a stint in jail, thanks to the machinations of her current boyfriend. A school dropout with no job prospects, Liam, his best friend Pinball and their small crew make ends meet by selling stolen cigarettes. Fiercely protective of his incarcerated mom and icily pitted against her manipulative live-in lover, Liam decides to buy a used mobile home during the months before his mother's release so that the two of them, along with Liam's estranged older sister Chantelle and her baby can become a functioning family again. Selling stolen cigarettes won't produce enough money to realize this dream, so Liam turns to selling drugs for a local crime lord, thus beginning an odyssey into a life of crime as dismal as it is predictable, culminating in the celebration of his 16th birthday on the run from family and authorities alike.

Loach traces this descending spiral in a series of realistic incidents that demonstrate, with appalling lucidity, how limited choices and hard options can scuttle even the most decent of intentions. At each step in Liam's undoing, he's faced with decisions that grow directly out of his immediate circumstances, always offering him opportunity to turn aside before it's too late--but his feckless attitude towards long-term consequences, combined with a heartbreaking desire to reconstruct his shattered family life whatever the consequences make him easy prey for the criminal adults who so callously corrupt him.

The apparent inevitability of Liam's tragedy is reminiscent of Lilya-4-Ever, the splendid Swedish movie that appeared earlier this year and which traced, with agonizing precision, the entrapment of a young Russian girl into forced prostitution. Loach's work lacks Lila's impact, principally because Liam is far more complicit in his own destruction than the heroine in Lilya; nevertheless, Sweet Sixteen's skillful use of Scottish locations, coupled with its pitch-perfect dialogue and wholly believable cast make this a solid, if ultimately grim movie experience. It's hard work with no satisfying closure for the audience as the final credits roll--but a solid film all around.

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