It has often been said that nobody makes films like Ken Loach, though one sometimes wonders if such praise doesn't also contain a note of relief. His film-making confronts such extremes of anguish, indignation and hopelessness that it is hard to imagine needing, let alone wanting, another one like him. Among British directors, only Gary Oldman has visited that Loachian hinterland of bruising social realism, and however much I admired the conviction of Nil By Mouth, I couldn't face a diet of it. Humankind cannot bear very much reality, and hardly any on a night out at the cinema.
Loach's new film, Sweet Sixteen, opens with children queueing to gaze at the night sky through a telescope, and the image instantly sets us on guard: gazing at the stars usually means there's a gutter not far below. The place turns out to be Greenock, a windswept, steep-hilled town just along the Clyde from Glasgow, and 15-year-old Liam (Martin Compston) is collecting 50p from each kid for the privilege of peeking through his telescope. He is abetted in this entrepreneurial venture by his mate Pinball (William Ruane), a cousin to those pale-faced scallywags who razz through the streets of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting; these two like nothing better than joyriding in a boosted Mercedes while Mozart's The Magic Flute blasts out from the stereo.
It marks a return to the gritty milieu of Loach's last-but-one film, My Name is Joe, in which Peter Mullan's recovering alcoholic tries to renounce his violent past. Sweet Sixteen looks to the threshold of such a life, to adolescents poised on the bank of criminality and gearing themselves to plunge in. Liam's case is complicated: his mother, Jean (Michelle Coulter), is in prison, due for release on his 16th birthday, and he's determined not to let her slide back into the vicious junkie ways of her drug-dealer boyfriend Stan (Gary McCormack). But if he's to save enough to buy his mam a caravan overlooking the river, he needs to make quick money – and the only way to do that is to start dealing drugs himself.
Loach invests the early scenes of familial discord with an almost comical savagery. I guess you'd have to hate your grandfather quite passionately to go to the trouble of shinnying up a drainpipe to steal his false teeth. When three men mug Liam and steal his "gear", he keeps jumping up, pursuing them and grabbing hold like a terrier, even though he gets another pummelling. (He's like a flyweight who refuses to stay on the canvas). It prompts despairing sighs from his sister Chantelle (Annmarie Fulton), who nevertheless bathes his wounds as she recalls the last time he got into a fight: "Ye fought 'cos you just didn't care what happened to ye." Chantelle, a bright, resourceful girl, cares enough to know that nothing good can come of seeing their mother, and is determined that her toddler, Calum, will get a better start than they ever did: "What happened to us isnae gonna happen to him." (The thick Glaswegian vernacular is subtitled for the first 15 minutes, incidentally; thereafter we are left to cope alone). She alone understands Liam's Achilles heel, not simply that he loves his mother, but that (a classic criminal tendency) he sentimentalises her.
What makes the film doubly depressing is that Liam, aspiring to a better life, embraces the vilest means to get there. His criminal initiatives attract the attention of a local crime boss, who sets up their first meeting – oh irony! – in a posh health club. One of the film's most powerful scenes has Liam, ordered to prove his mettle by killing a rival hoodlum, pacing up and down a nightclub backroom in an agony of indecision, his head silhouetted against a queasy green light. What's almost as upsetting are the congratulatory hugs and cheers from the gang once Liam has passed the test; we realise that every step he takes in his new career will coarsen and brutalise him. This is where the casting of Martin Compston figures crucially. Whippet-lean and wiry, his jaw lightly dusted with acne and his lip with a bum-fluff moustache, Compston inhabits this junior hard man with a fierce intensity, but also a conscious tenderness, most notably in the relationship with his sister. Annmarie Fulton is also superb as Chantelle, a single mum who has had to act in loco parentis long before her time.
Paul Laverty's earthy script remains for the most part non-judgmental: this is the way people get by, he seems to say, so get used to it. Only once does he hint at the lethal nature of Liam's heroin dealing, when a sharp-eyed mother on the stairs of some grim tenement turns her fury on him. Suddenly the running joke about the pizza delivery service that also provides its customers with smack isn't funny anymore, if it ever was. It foreshadows that point in just about every Loach film when the viewer starts to get a sick feeling in the stomach, an ominous sense of something terrible about to happen. Laverty throws a feint with a scene of self-loathing mutilation, and as the ambulance is summoned you think (you hope) that the danger has passed. But no, the worst is yet to come.
Admire the honesty, at least. Economic survival in a depressed Scottish community was never going to make for an easy watch, and Sweet Sixteen delivers some painful jabs to soft middle-class sensibilities. If you leave the cinema feeling winded, then it must be counted a success. If you also leave feeling obscurely grateful, then that might be because you won't have to watch another Ken Loach film in a while.
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