Sweet Sixteen (2002)
Director: Ken Loach
Screenwriter: Paul Laverty
Starring: Martin Compston, Michelle Coulter, Annmarie Fulton, William Ruane
Looking back on the career of Ken Loach, the famous British director’s filmography seems to act as a sort of time capsule of the United Kingdom, his films portraying both old and modern social issues whilst also representing some of the nation’s most unique locales, his fifty-something credits including projects in some of the most underrepresented areas of England, Northern Ireland and, for Sweet Sixteen, Scotland, this 2002 release following a young Scottish NED (Non-Educated Delinquent) named Liam who is trying to raise money for a new life with his mother once she is released from prison.
Lead actor Martin Compston, who is now a go-to actor in Scotland and has starred in many of the country’s most well known productions – Filth, ‘Line of Duty’, The Wee Man – made his start in Sweet Sixteen having never acted before, earning the role through an audition held at his high school. Although Compston has no doubt expanded his talent in the eighteen years since this film’s release, it may still be his best performance, his lack of experience helping him to craft a powerfully raw portrayal that goes hand in hand with the gritty backdrop that small town Scotland provides.
The shooting style of Sweet Sixteen is rather standard so far as Ken Loach films go, or most realist films for that matter, but that is not to say that the cinematography is not noteworthy. The pseudo-documentarian style of Loach and others has almost always been tied to the realist genre, and for good reason: it works. The handheld camera work draws the viewer into the world created by Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty, almost as though they are standing by Liam throughout his story, giving the viewer a personal connection to the characters seen on screen and expanding their experience.
As director, Ken Loach helms Sweet Sixteen tremendously well and with characteristic delicacy. His decision to use mainly untrained actors affords the film the opportunity to feel natural; more like a documentary than a piece of fiction. Loach further instills this idea through his blocking, keeping the actions of his actors fairly minimal in order to create natural set-pieces, the artistry of his work coming to shine through its simplicity.
Behind the typewriter is Paul Laverty in his fourth venture with Loach. His handling of Liam as a character is truly excellent, the screenwriter making a concerted effort to ask us to not judge the character at face value – that of a thuggish youth – and instead see this child for who he really is. As illustrated through his love and dedication to his mother, we see that to be a kind-hearted and loyal young soul unfortunately bonded to a traumatic and impoverished youth. This of course makes it more difficult for us as it becomes clearer that Liam can go down only one of two paths, and that he continues to walk farther and farther down the wrong one.
The screenplay, through Laverty’s work and Loach’s handling of its delicate themes and topics, pushes Sweet Sixteen into the territory of the exceptional, but it also weighs the film down. Although Laverty in particular crafts a fascinating story, the way in which it jumps from beat to beat is not so inspired, Sweet Sixteen feeling particularly formulaic and even repetitive at times, the whole film feeling like a repeated journey down a bumpy road of ups and downs, many of which offer little to expand upon the value of the last. Some moments feel underdeveloped, others horseshoed in, but the emotional impact of the film is thankfully never lost, and its social commentary remains strong.
Sweet Sixteen is not the most accomplished work of the Laverty-Loach partnership, but it remains an empathetic and powerful portrait of underrepresented youth nonetheless; a film that may struggle to convert the uninitiated Loachians, but packs a tremendously heavy punch worthy of seeking out.