Along with Mike Leigh, Ken Loach is the best interpreter of working class life in Britain. More political and socially conscious than Leigh, Loach has directed such hard-hitting films as Poor Cow, Kes, My Name is Joe and Cathy Come Home, but he has topped himself in gutsiness and power with his latest effort, SWEET SIXTEEN.
Shot in Scotland with an all-native cast--a mixture of pros and amateurs--SWEET SIXTEEN gets so close to life in the shipbuilding town of Greenock (just north of Glasgow) that you can practically smell the River Clyde that runs through it. Once a thriving place that supported tens of thousands of workers, Greenock was devastated when the Iron Lady, Maggie Thatcher, shut down all of the nationalized industries, placing not just one but two generations out of work.
Written by Paul Laverty, Roach's longtime collaborator, SWEET SIXTEEN focuses on a Greenock family who speak to each other in such an authentic local dialect that English subtitles must be employed throughout for audience comprehension. The dialect is colorful, blunt and extremely profane, even more so than another comparable Scottish film, Trainspotting.
Liam, played by a first-time actor, Martin Compston, is fifteen going on sixteen (hence the ironic title). Disaffected, confused and more than a little lost, he's still a bright, chipper kid--full of cheekiness and street-smarts.
The big love in Liam's life is his mother, Jean (Michelle Coulter, another non-pro, but one with ten years' experience working in a drug rehabilitation clinic). Jean's a good but foolish woman, and a bad mother to boot, one who's always looked for love in all the wrong places. Her current boyfriend Stan (Gary McCormack, seen recently in Gangs of New York), is a punk--a smalltime dope dealer and scam artist who convinced her to take the rap for him in a police bust.
Jean's been in jail when the film opens, but is due out in a couple of months. Liam, who hasn't given up on her the way his older sister Chantelle (the remarkable Annmarie Fulton) has, is determined to find a new home for her, a two-bedroom trailer which sits on a hillside overlooking the Clyde. A single parent at seventeen, Chantelle is determined to break away from the petty criminal world in which her family--and much of Greenock--is mired, and can't understand why Liam thinks she will ever leave Stan, "that waster and loser."
Liam persuades his sidekick, another 15-year-old called Pinball (William Ruane) for the way he has bounced around from one foster home to another (almost all the kids in the film are alienated from their parents), to join him in a scheme to steal money from Stan and his even more obnoxious, abusive father, Rab (Tommy McKee).
When news of their success reaches the local bigtime gangster Tony (Martin McCardie), he just has to meet Liam, if only because he sees himself in this brash, ballsy kid. Tony ends up inviting Liam to join his gang and become his protege. Liam, still hoping to score enough money to fix Jean, Chantelle and her baby up in a home of their own, allows himself to get caught up in Tony's sleazy, violent criminal world.
Loach puts all of the bleak reality of post-Thatcher, working-class Scotland into his movie, in a fearless and uncompromising way. Just about everything and everyone gets smashed up in SWEET SIXTEEN, but at the same time Loach does hold out some hope for Liam, a quintessential survivor.