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With: Martin Compston, William Ruane, Annmarie Fulton, Gary McCormack, Tommy McKee, Michelle Abercromby, Michelle Coulter
Written by: Paul Laverty
Directed by: Ken Loach
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive strong language, drug content and some violence
Language: English, with English subtitles
Running Time: 106
Date: 05/21/2002

Sweet Sixteen (2003)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Sweet' and Lowdown

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Ken Loach has made a long career out of hobnobbing with the working classes and becoming passionate about their various political turmoils.

He sometimes climbs a little too high on his soapbox and edges a bit too close to preachy Stanley Kramer territory, as in his previous film Bread and Roses. But when he's good and sticks very close to the ground he's capable of great films, such as Kes, Land and Freedom or My Name Is Joe. Sweet Sixteen may be another one of those.

Strangely enough, just because Loach deals in realism does not mean his movies are realistic. Realism is a tool for him rather than an end-all, be-all. His plots sometimes come from out of the past, none more so than with Sweet Sixteen.

This story of a fifteen year-old who enters a life of crime resembles classics like Hawks' Scarface, Walsh's White Heat, and any of a handful of other James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson gangster films.

Liam (Martin Compston) is a typical Glasgow teenager, prone to trouble and already embarking on a life of crime by selling cigarettes in bars and taunting the cops. His beloved mother (Michelle Coulter) sits in prison, and her sleazy boyfriend makes Liam smuggle drugs in to her. On one trip, Liam refuses to pass the drugs and gets himself thrown out of the house.

He moves in with his sister Chantelle (Annmarie Fulton) and her child. Once there, he discovers a caravan (camper) that he would like to move his mother into when she's released from prison on the eve of his 16th birthday. So he and his best friend Pinball (William Ruane) steal drugs from his mother's boyfriend and begin their own business in order to purchase the caravan.

Liam is so successful with his small-time drug dealing that the local mafia takes notice and sets him up with a big-time operation, running out of a pizza joint and using the delivery scooters to transport the drugs. But of course, the mob has other things in mind for Liam, and his perfect little world can't last forever.

Loach mixes up the old-time plotlines a bit; Liam does not get jealous when people date his sister as Paul Muni did in Scarface, but he does get a bit overprotective of his mother, as Cagney was in White Heat. The movie even has a pretty gangster's moll (Michelle Abercromby) who is attracted to Liam's authority, even though he appears less interested in her than in his mother.

In another scene Liam is forced to do a hit on one of his loved ones, yet Loach never lets us know the outcome. This may seem like sloppy plotting, but that's where Loach's realism comes in and saves the day. If something doesn't wrap up tightly into a neat little plotted package, well, then that's life.

Once again, Loach works with a cast of unknowns and gets dynamic performances from them, especially Compston in the lead role. Compston effectively portrays the rage needed to enter the gangster lifestyle, plus a brutal, barely controlled physicality. He looks a bit like a peach-fuzzed Josh Hartnett, but a lot scarier.

Because of its early film origins, Sweet Sixteen may seem too plot-bound and not as immediate as some of Loach's classics, but it's still an excellent film and belongs on his list of must-see movies.

One side note: because the Glasgow accents are so thick, the distributor has provided English subtitles.

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