Sweet Sixteen

Sweet Sixteen

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Liam is 15 years old. He's coming up for exams at school, has a job delivering pizza and enjoys hanging around with his best friend Pinball. His life is not so very different from that of any other teenager on the housing estate where he lives. His mother is due to be released from prison, his sister is anxious to avoid trouble, and he just wants to have a normal life.

A naturalistic, gently developing fable about a wee ned growing up in a small Scottish town embroiled in drug culture, Sweet Sixteen deserves every bit of the critical praise it has won, especially for its young star, Martin Compston, who is lively and engaging even at his most unpleasant. His character's ambition to reunite his family and help his sometime junkie mother start a new life is something anyone could sympathise with, and for this reason it's very easy to get caught up in the action as he does, scarcely aware of the increasing seriousness of events as they unfold. The very ordinariness of the background, characters and dialogue is what makes this so hard hitting. It illustrates the desperate circumstances in which many Scots live without ever coming across as directly political or patronising; it is vibrant and full of humour.

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It's refreshing to see such an accurate and amoral study of drug culture and organised crime, where the damage done speaks for itself. Our young hero is enterprising, hard working and inventive, willing to shoulder responsibility and eager for the chance to prove himself, yet the only opportunities life offers him turn these qualities toward self-destruction. This brutal story is cleverly told, with well rounded characters and numerous subplots to hold the viewer's attention. It never comes across as too bleak to watch. All of the performances are spot on, and what really makes it work is the sense of affection between characters set against one another by fate.

Against this background, the story develops as a tragedy in the classic Greek style, with a young man striving in vain to change his destiny. The viewer is so drawn in to his point of view that it's easy to understand how he feels trapped and how he is carried away by emotion, even when one can recognise his naivete. The parts of the mentor, the best friend, the complex enemy and the concerned women on the sidelines are played so fluently that one scarcely notices their archetypal status. Loach has always been good at eliciting naturalistic performances from his casts, but here he finally has material gripping enough to do something with them, something which veers off sharply from soap opera to morality play as the hero's actions become more extreme in the days leading up to his 16th birthday.

This is undoubtedly Ken Loach's best work, and is not to be missed.

Reviewed on: 04 Apr 2009
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Sweet Sixteen packshot
Scottish teenager becomes drug dealer to give his mum, who is in jail, a proper home.
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Read more Sweet Sixteen reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray ***1/2

Director: Ken Loach

Writer: Paul Laverty

Starring: Martin Compston, William Ruane, Annmarie Fulton, Michelle Coulter, Michelle Abercromby, Gary McCormack, Tommy McKee

Year: 2002

Runtime: 105 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

Festivals:

BIFF 2014
Karlovy 2017

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