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Sweet Sixteen (2002)

Courtesy of Sixteen Films

Main image of Sweet Sixteen (2002)
35mm, colour, 106 mins
DirectorKen Loach
Production CompanySixteen Films, Road Movies Filmproduktion GmbH
ProducerRebecca O'Brien
ScreenplayPaul Laverty
PhotographyBarry Ackroyd
MusicGeorge Fenton

Cast: Martin Compston (Liam), Michelle Abercromby (Suzanne), Michelle Coulter (Jean), Gary McCormack (Stan), Tommy McKee (Rab)

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A teenage boy resorts to dealing drugs in an attempt to escape the poverty of the housing estate and create a new life with his drug addict mother.

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A typically powerful social realist drama, Sweet Sixteen (2002) represents Ken Loach's fourth collaboration with Glaswegian scriptwriter Paul Laverty. Shot around the council estates of Greenock, an economically depressed, former shipbuilding town near Glasgow, the film revisits themes familiar from their previous work, featuring the hardships of people at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Loach shows how desperate individuals resort to illegal methods of generating money, such as petty crime and drug dealing, while addressing the wider social problems of unemployment and the erosion of community. Press notes featuring a short essay on poverty in Scotland and its effects on children accompanied the film on its release.

Excluded from school, Liam and his friend Pinball at first sell contraband cigarettes in a local pub, but they soon graduate to selling hard drugs. Determined to escape the life of the streets, Liam strives to earn sufficient money to buy a caravan on the estuary for his mother, when she is released from prison on his sixteenth birthday.

Although the film presents an uncompromising and grim reality, there are fleeting moments of humour and tenderness and Loach, characteristically, handles his protagonists with sympathy. Liam's methods may be illegal and immoral, but his motives are decent, however naive. His attachment to his junkie mother is genuinely touching and his relationship with his relatively stable sister Chantelle and her young child offers some hope.

Liam, played with an impressive naturalism by non-professional actor Martin Compston, is confronted with unenviable ethical dilemmas, such as whether to ditch his best friend in order to get on in the criminal underworld. Ultimately, he is naïve in his belief that he can 'cure' his mother by escaping the life around the town's drug-infested housing estates. A powerful scene in a nightclub, in which he appears ready to carry out his gangster boss's instructions - even to the point of murder - demonstrates his determination to achieve his goal.

With its depiction of a young boy on the brink of adulthood, Sweet Sixteen was inevitably compared with Loach's Kes (1969), particularly in its bleak portrait of wasted potential. But it is also reminiscent of François Truffaut's Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, France 1959): like that film's hero, Antoine, Liam ends the film alone on a beach by the sea, facing an uncertain future.

Chris Allison

Sweet Sixteen features some very strong language, and the clips selected here, though generally milder than other sequences in the film, do reflect this. Teachers are advised to view the clips before playing them in the classroom.

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Video Clips
1. 'Kiss yer ma' (3:03)
2. In with the big boys (3:14)
3. The caravan (0:50)
4. 'Does Stan know?' (3:49)
Production stills
Ae Fond Kiss (2004)
Gregory's Girl (1980)
Ackroyd, Barry (1954-)
Fenton, George (1950-)
Laverty, Paul (1957-)
Loach, Ken (1936-)
Morris, Jonathan (1949-)
O'Brien, Rebecca (1957-)
Smith, Roger
Ken Loach: Feature Films
Ken Loach: The Controversies
Tales from the Shipyard
Teen Terrors On Film