With all adulation/debate/unnecessary outrage regarding Ken Loach’s current release, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ (2016), this seemed like a good moment to delve into a work from his past. ‘Sweet Sixteen’ also features many of Loach’s regular tropes: social realism, disenfranchised youth, and neglected communities. The neglected community in question this time is Greenock, a working class town outside Glasgow.
The film opens with a very amusing sequence that plays on the audience’s preconceptions and prejudices about the characters. On the street at night, two older boys are demanding money from younger kids. Speaking aggressively with thick Glaswegian accents and dressed in tracksuits and baseball caps, they are stereotypical Scottish neds as we are used to seeing from other media sources. The audience immediately jump to the assumption that some kind of thievery or petty crime is being committed.
In fact the two older boys have a telescope and are charging for use of it. And as a group, they are collectively astonished by the sight of the stars and planets in the night sky. Loach, using his archetypal brand of humour, has indicated that (unsurprisingly) his film will be giving us a sympathetic depiction, rather than the exaggerated, negative representation we are so used to seeing. That is not to say that the film does not deal with many of the issues we expect. It just does so with characters whose personalities have more than one-dimension.
The film centres around one of those older boys: a 15-year old called Liam (Martin Compston). He has dropped out of school and hangs around all day with the other older boy, Pinball (William Ruane), making money by selling cigarettes illegally. Liam’s mother is in prison and will be released in a few months. His ambition is to get enough money together to afford a caravan by the river for him and his mother, in order to escape Greenock and its dead-end, crime-ridden nature. But in his attempt to gather funds, he himself falls into a life of crime.
The film does an excellent job of laying out this dilemma for Liam. The key is that his character is fully developed and multi-faceted, so the audience can understand his actions even if they do not agree with them. He is driven by positive initiative, yet he is stuck in societal circumstances that do not offer him any (legal) opportunities to deliver on this.
He ends up falling into gangs and committing serious crimes. The gang life portrayed in the film is certainly not glamorous, but to someone in Liam’s circumstances, it is understandably attractive. The result of this is that his actions, however misjudged we may feel that they are, are completely comprehensible.
Undoubtedly the strongest element of the film is the performances of the young actors. One of Loach’s great talents is in finding unknown actors who are utterly natural on camera. From finding David Bradley for ‘Kes’ (1969), it is something he has achieved throughout his career. Here, a weak or mediocre central performance and the audience would not become involved in the moral dilemma. But Martin Compston is exceptional as Liam, and it is on his performance that the film’s success hangs.
The screenplay is written by Paul Laverty, a very regular collaborator of Ken Loach’s (13 times by my count). The script (or what there is of it – much of the dialogue appears semi-improvised) has an extraordinary number of swear words. With 313 fucks and 20 cunts, Laverty clearly has an ear for Scottish dialogue. It’s no wonder that when selecting Sweet Sixteen to watch, I was offered the choices of “English” or “English with English subtitles”.
A similarly Scottish element to the script is the touch of humour that plays out during the film. This is in place in a lot of Ken Loach’s films, where people in poor state of affairs can find humour in their circumstances. There is some of that in Sweet Sixteen – such as the aforementioned stargazing scene – but, perhaps in this case, the film could have done with a little more.
Finally, we can ask what the moral message Loach is trying to pass on to us. Most films about an individual’s descent into crime play out like simple morality tales about their choices and their actions, lecturing the audience about their mistakes, and allowing us to pass judgement on them. What is notable about Sweet Sixteen is Loach’s avoidance of this. Instead – and it is one of the best attributes of the film – Loach has a clear aversion to this straightforward story.
This message does waver somewhat in the final third of the film as Liam’s character begins to disintegrate into one of the one-dimensional characters. To me it felt that the Loach/Lafferty script was falling into the stereotypes it did so well to avoid. However, I am sure a very well-constructed defence could be made by arguing that his character has been corrupted by the people has surrounded himself with.
But for the most part, those simple, commonplace messages are avoided. In their place, the morality tale that Loach wants to tell us relates to the community in which Liam lives, and wider society’s neglect of such areas. It is the circumstances that Liam finds himself in which causes him to act badly, rather than the character itself. And the message that Loach does want to pass on to us, is that we – as a society – should be doing more about helping these communities.