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Sweet Sixteen

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The world has changed a lot in the 22 years since Ken Loach made Looks and Smiles, his tender, honest, unsettling story of a working-class English teenager struggling to survive the economics of his social class. Since then, technology has burgeoned -- and spread to the farthest corners. The world's wealth has multiplied, too, although somehow most of the money manages to find its way into the hands of fewer and fewer people.

That, it seems, is the current and perpetual dilemma of people like Liam (Martin Compston), the tragic protagonist of Loach's new film, Sweet Sixteen. He's a decent boy, just a few months shy of his titular birthday, and he's desperate to transform this landmark passage into the dawn of a responsible young manhood.

His slightly older sister, Chantelle, a single mom raising wee Calum alone and well, takes Liam in after Stan, their mother's abusive boyfriend, beats him bloody and throws him out. Liam becomes a happy surrogate father to his cherubic wee nephew, and their time together uplifts them both. As for Jean, their reckless, submissive mother, on whom Chantelle gave up long ago: She's a former junkie, in jail after taking the rap for Stan.

Liam wants the family reunited and salved when she's released in two months, the day before his 16th birthday. So he focuses his impressive enterprise on buying a cramped trailer home by a placid river, hoping that the cozy dump will offer the family (absent Stan) a chance to reconcile and heal.

Liam's plan begins well, if dangerously: Stan deals drugs, so Liam, with the help of his plaintive, goalless, life-long friend Pinball, steals the stash, calls the cops (to keep Stan occupied), and sells the drugs for a down payment. But they need more, and their work as pizza delivery boys, while lucrative in tips, doesn't cut it.

Then, serendipity intervenes. When the local drug kingpin gets wind of Liam's dealings, he's so impressed that he offers him work, although Liam has to prove himself by killing someone. Thus Liam's road to Hell is well-paved with his own grand intentions, and with help from a suave Satanic father to replace the one he never had.

Working in a tradition of British cinema, and taking it to a new level with his furious commitment, Loach (Ladybird Ladybird, My Name Is Joe) has made films like this since the 1960s. He's a pantheon director for the quality of his art, but also for his refusal to go commercial with happy endings and easy solutions (or any solutions at all). His films are dramatic documents, and also dramatic ethnographies: The Scottish accents of his English-speaking characters are so thick in Sweet Sixteen that it comes to us with subtitles.

Loach is one of 11 directors from 11 countries who contributed to 11'09''01 September 11, a series of 11-minute contemplations on the World Trade Center attack. (The title uses the European method of listing a date as numerals.) His contribution to the anthology points out, with incendiary irony, that the U.S.-backed overthrow of Chilean leader Salvador Allende, and the installation of the lethal Pinochet regime, took place on Sept. 11, 1973. He suggests a what-goes-around cause and effect, certainly one reason why the film has yet to find an American distributor.

There's nothing quite so bitter to swallow in Sweet Sixteen, although maybe this film should outrage us even more. It opens with Liam and his pals making a few quid by selling glimpses through a telescope to some pre-teen boys in the neighborhood. Their effort is benignly capitalistic, but also gently paternal as they teach their impressionable heirs to imagine the stars. It's a beautiful metaphor, and a painful contrast to Liam's fate. "What a waste, what a waste," Chantelle says to Liam, who's on a cell phone. "What are we going to do?" And all he can answer is: "My batteries are running down."

This is Loach at his best, at once literal and symbolic. For a while Sweet Sixteen is a simple slice of life, exquisitely acted by the intuitive young newcomers who play the kids, and who never once seem like amateurs struggling to say their lines. Then Loach gets Liam all tangled up, and you begin to wonder if he's making the boy's life too hard. But how can he make things easier and still be true? Would we trust or believe Loach if Liam's life became a stirring example of how everyone can break the cycle of poverty and abuse? That, after all, is what we have Hollywood and television for. (And also Mike Leigh, a more commercial slice-of-life British director whose films, like Secrets & Lies, are slightly more sanguine and palatable.)

Sweet Sixteen takes place in a damp Scottish river town that Loach films handsomely, but without romanticizing it. His script, written by frequent collaborator Paul Laverty (a former human-rights lawyer in Nicaragua), explores the power of filial love, and the seemingly unstoppable destruction that one generation, living without hope, wreaks on the next (Jean is a dreadful mother, but as a sociological construct, she literally can't help herself). "An opportunity like this for somebody like you only comes once," the drug kingpin says to the impoverished kid, then orders him to brutalize his best friend. And he's right -- horribly, tragically, immutably right.


 

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