While Larry Clark sensationalizes the plight of children, British neo-realist Ken Loach merely presents. Though his portraits of the working class occasionally speak from the pulpit, they don’t condescend to the struggles and determinations of working class life. Sweet Sixteen doesn’t muster the angry outcry of Loach’s Hidden Agenda or the disillusioned heartbreak of Ladybird, Ladybird, but it does convey the cycle of disillusionment among poverty row parents and children.
Fifteen-year-old Liam (Martin Compston) is a little wise guy who makes his way in Glasgow selling off cartons of ripped-off cigarettes. Easing into manhood, he takes naïve steps toward creating a better life for himself and his family, especially his mother (Michelle Coulter), who is soon to be released from prison. Sweet Sixteen follows his immature scams, which grow complicated as he switches from cigarettes to drug dealing (not using). He finds his boyhood pals drifting to the wayside as small time criminals all too eager to help him rise up in their sordid ranks. Soon he tries to define his own version of morality: crime is bad, but helping your family is worth the price of badness.
It’s a tale ripped from the pages of Greek tragedy, where Liam’s best intentions lead him toward inevitable doom. But the familiar frame story is strengthened by Loach’s eye for naturalistic details—it’s kitchen sink realism without kitchen sink condescension. Loach keeps his scenes mired in everyday Glasgow life, with straightforward performances from a cast of mostly non-actors and a trailblazing one from young Compston. With his sad teenage moustache, old scars on his cheek, and the glint of determination in his eye, he’s a face any blue-collar schoolboy will recognize—the smart aleck who’s actually smart. Held back by class, he’s making the most of his lot.
Sweet Sixteen gives counterpoint to his bad behavior in tranquil, rain-specked images of Port Glasgow, a winding river, gravel beds and small patches of green peeking out in an industry town. Despite the film’s predictable journey (it’s only a matter of time before Liam’s mother readily lapses back into an abusive relationship), Loach achieves moments of transcendence. He places this confused young hero in these near-poetic landscapes, or under a starry sky peering at Saturn, or watching the tide follow its cyclical pattern. There’s beauty within the squalor, and that’s the pity of Liam’s situation.
“Tide goes in, tide goes out, nothing changes,” says the middle-aged protagonist of Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing. Poor Liam comes to that bleak conclusion on the dawn of his 16th birthday. Sweet Sixteen never achieves more than being a dead-on accurate portrayal of a boyish idealist’s slow crumble, and thus doesn’t give us more than a fleeting glimpse at misery. It doesn’t say much that most viewers haven’t already figured out for themselves, but it doesn’t weave its truths in deceit much like Larry Clark does. It’s movies like Sweet Sixteen that keep us honest.