Sweet Sixteen

UK/Germany/Spain/France/Italy 2002, 106 mins
Director: Ken Loach

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.

Contains strong violence.

Sweet Sixteen is sure to be written off in some quarters as Ken Loach beating the same old drum, and that’s perfectly true. The movie is so classical an instance of his committed realist cinema that it’s practically a curriculum vitae. Economy is destiny as always, but the grim determinism in the atmosphere chiefly recalls My Name Is Joe (1998), with its context of chronic mass employment and its ear-straining Scottish idiom. ‘Every fuckin’ choice stinks doon here,’ Joe cried out in anguish at his ruined dreams, and it isn’t hard to imagine that Liam, the aspiring hero of Sweet Sixteen, exhibits Loach’s archetypal proletarian at an earlier stage, before the bitter lesson has quite sunk in (screenwriter Paul Laverty indeed proposes the film as a sort of prequel to Joe). While he’s less sensitive and far more pragmatic, fifteen-year-old Liam also naturally conjures up Billy in Kes (1969), capable of finer things but hamstrung from the start. Billy’s taming of the kestrel connotes a human potential beyond his preordained drudgery in the coal pit, and Liam has an iconic object too. The riverside caravan where he plans to live with his shiftless mother lean is the street kid’s version of an Arcadian idyll – plentiful fishing and plastic flowers on the doorway. In either case, it’s the merest glimpse of freedom, for the iron laws of necessity soon kick in to extinguish all hope.

Those who want British cinema to be light and fluffy have sometimes accused Loach of defeatism and complained that his working-class tragedies are rigged by melodramatic plotting. No doubt; yet from Zola to Bicycle Thieves, a long tradition links melodrama with realism. The coincidences and chance encounters in one (Liam finances the caravan through drug dealing until he sets foot on the wrong council estate) add up to a nemesis that conveniently doubles for the oppressive social structures in the other. A certain lack of novelty is the price Loach pays for his conviction that human misery is systemic. The basic rules of capitalism haven’t changed, and he keeps plugging away at that unfashionable truth for the few who care to listen. In line with the most durable Marxist aesthetic, Loach and his writers seek out protagonists whose experiences are typical – not one-off overachievers like Billy Elliot – to feed the audience’s syrupy fantasies, but the ordinary Joes and Liams trying to scrape together a decent life. While the method risks abstraction (as in Bread and Roses, where the people are agitprop mannequins representing the class struggle), it more often results in characters who feel rounded and concrete. With a touch of the 19-century realist, Loach steers a middle course between the particular and the universal, specifying psychological traits, yet refracting them through wider processes and institutions. You get a sharp sense of the emotional dialectic binding Liam and his mother – how her benign neglect spurs him on to ever greater possessiveness and need. At the same time, it’s clear that the rootlessness motivating both in contradictory ways is their inevitable portion as the losers of history.

The dovetailing of the personal and the political can seem a little neat, which is to say that Loach’s characters are short on mystery. There’s never an impression of something left over that surpasses the understanding – Loach is too commonsensical and English to have truck with that brand of cosmic malarky. In the final scene, Liam gazes out over the river and faces his future like Antoine in Les Quatre cents coups. The difference is that for Liam the writing is emphatically on the wall. When the highest legitimate goal we hear about is a part-time job at a call centre, it isn’t remarkable that he should be embarking on a career as a petty gangster. Laverty’s script plus some cunning details in the mise en scène enable us to see the solid advantages of crime for the culturally dispossessed – not only the flashy cars and smart clothes, but behind them such spiritual goods as security, status, companionship and even self-esteem. Strangely, the total absence of ambiguity doesn’t make the film less affecting, but more so. Like Joe or Ladybird Ladybird (1994), Sweet Sixteen can induce scalding tears because it offers a plain and inescapable perception of how material force operates to maim the soul of the individual. None of that would be possible, of course, without the observational skills Loach has been honing for close to four decades. By now, the illusion is complete, we are simply eavesdropping on these damaged lives, the camera appearing to follow rather than lead. Loach gives his people space, which renders their chains all the more unbearably poignant.
Peter Matthews, Sight and Sound, October 2002

Director: Jason Bradbury
UK 2019
12 mins

Director: Ken Loach
©/Production Companies: Sixteen Films, Road Movies Filmproduktion GmbH, Tornasol Films, Alta Films
Presented by: Scottish Screen, BBC Films
Presented with the support of: Filmstiftung NRW, Glasgow Film Office
Presented in association with: Diaphana Distribution, BIM Distribuzione, Cinéart, ARD, Westdeutscher Rundfunk
Developed with financial assistance from: Scottish Screen National Lottery
Producer: Rebecca O’Brien
Co-producers: Ulrich Felsberg, Gerardo Herrero
Line Producer: Peter Gallagher
Production Accountant: Elizabeth Hurley
Production Co-ordinator: Abigail Howkins
German Production: Luke Schiller, IPS International Production Service
Production: Sally Grant, Louise Saunders, Shuna Frood
Road Movies Team: Joanna Ashton-Jones, Denise Booth, Frank Graf, Hailon Li, Valentina Lori, Karin C. Müller, Volker Otte, Rainer Pyls, Ute Schneider, Kai-Peter Uhlig
Location Manager: Brian Kaczynski
Location Assistant: Beverley Syme
Production Assistants: Beverley Murray, Leigh Pickford
1st Assistant Director: David Gilchrist
2nd Assistant Director: Michael Queen
3rd Assistant Director: Elaine Mackenzie
Script Supervisor: Susanna Lenton
Screenplay: Paul Laverty
Script Consultant: Roger Smith
Director of Photography: Barry Ackroyd
Focus Puller: Carl Hudson
Clapper Loaders: Julie Bills, Julia Robinson
Stills Photography: Joss Barratt
Special Effects: Wolf Bosse, Werk AG
Editor: Jonathan Morris
1st Assistant Editor: Anthony Morris
2nd Assistant Editor: Paul Clegg
Production Designer: Martin Johnson
Art Director: Fergus Clegg
Assistant Art Director: Julie Ann Horan
Costume Designer: Carole K. Millar
Costume Assistant: Deirdre Johnstone
Make-up: Sarah Fidelo
Titles Design: Martin Butterworth, Creative Partnership
Titles: Cineimage
Music: George Fenton
Music Performed/Produced by: George Fenton, David Lawson, Simon Chamberlain
Soprano Saxophone: Jamie Talbot
Music Recorded by: Steve Price
Sound Recordist: Ray Beckett
Sound Assistant: Kieran Boyne
Boom Operator: Pete Murphy
Sound Re-recording: Graham V. Hartstone, Mark Sheffield, Pinewood Studios
Supervising Sound Editor: Kevin Brazier
[Sound] FX Editor: Wayne Brooks
Foley Artistes: Julie Ankerson, John Fewell
Foley Re-recording Mixer: Robert Brazier
Research: Pamela Marshall
Stunt Co-ordinators: Paul Heasman, Jim Dowdall
Stunt Performers: Stuart Clark, George Cottle, Dave Fisher, Richard Hammatt, Derek Lea

Martin Compston (Liam)
Annmarie Fulton (Chantelle)
William Ruane (Pinball)
Michelle Abercromby (Suzanne)
Michelle Coulter (Jean)
Gary McCormack (Stan)
Tommy McKee (Rab)
Calum McAlees (Calum)
Robert Rennie (Scullion)
Martin McCardie (Tony)
Robert Harrison, George McNeilage, Rikki Traynor (Tony’s gang)
Jon Morrison (Douglas)
Junior Walker (Night-Time)
Gary Maitland (Side-Kick)
Scott Dymond (Davi-Vampire)
Mark Dallas, Stephen McGivern, Robert Muir (pizza boys)
Matt Costello (motorbike policeman)
Sandy Hewitt (truck driver)
Mercy (three-legged dog)
Lily Smart (barmaid)
Bruce Sturrock (caravan site manager)
William Cassidy, Robert McFadyen, Stephen Purdon (muggers)
Tony Collins (cold pizza man)
Marie Shankley (woman on stairs)
Louise Anderson, Jackie Baker, David Charles, Donna Clark, Robert Cowan, Samuel Cowan, Tracey Cowan, Anastacia Davies, James Doherty, Daniel Donnelly, Sally Fisher, Lynn Gardiner, Elizabeth Gatens, Christopher Graham, Michael Graham, Martin Gribbin, Darnell Hooks, Thomas Hopkins, Jean Keenan, Anne-Marie Lafferty, Ann Lynch, Gina McGee, Tommy McKinla, Theresa McNeil, Daniel McDermid, Donald McPhil, Robbie Meldrum, Maryanne Melvin, David Miller, Len Mullen, Summer Murray, Eileen O’Connor, Catherine O’Donaghue, Sharon Owens, Craig Park, Jean Robertson, Kieran Rowe, Mary Scott, Kenneth Shand, John Simpson, James Storey, Brian Strachan, Cherenay Strand, Jackie Sutherland, Kyle Turner, Chris Walker

UK/Germany/Spain/France/Italy 2002©
106 mins

Sat 2 Sep 17:50; Fri 8 Sep 18:20
Bullet Boy
Wed 6 Sep 20:50; Sat 9 Sep 20:55
Thu 7 Sep 18:10 (+ intro by season curator Nia Childs); Mon 18 Sep 20:45
Beautiful Thing
Sun 10 Sep 18:30; Fri 22 Sep 20:40
Dead Man’s Shoes + Q&A with Shane Meadows and Paddy Considine
Tue 12 Sep 18:10
Sweet Sixteen
Wed 13 Sep 18:00; Mon 25 Sep 20:40
Blue Story
Thu 14 Sep 18:15; Sat 23 Sep 20:40
My Beautiful Laundrette
Wed 20 Sep 18:10; Thu 28 Sep 20:30
Muscle + Q&A with director Gerard Johnson, actors Craig Fairbrass, Cavan Clerkin and Polly Maberly
Fri 22 Sep 18:00
Sexy Beast
Sat 23 Sep 18:20; Mon 2 Oct 20:30
Mona Lisa
Sun 24 Sep 18:20; Fri 29 Sep 20:30
Govan Ghost Story
Mon 25 Sep 18:30
The Football Factory + intro by Danny Dyer
Mon 25 Sep 20:45

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