Cinema Signal:

The Unplanned Pregnancy Book for Teens and College Students
by Dorrie Williams-Wheeler
(in Paperback from Amazon)
. "Sweet Sixteen"

If the title suggests beautiful teenagers graduating from high school, fighting their hormones as they contemplate the opposite sex, and colorful parties to celebrate the special occasion, director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty are here to tell you that the picture is decidedly less lighthearted on the uncordial streets of Greenock, an economically struggling suburb of Glasgow, Scotland. Here, where mutual respect is an alien concept, the possibilities for a promising 15-year-old boy gives a whole darker cast to the term, "coming of age." And, the only thing here that's beautiful is the finely structured screenplay that traces the evolution of youthful criminality with tempered control and believability.

Fifteen year old Liam (Martin Compston) is a standout among his peers for his natural creativity and audacious leadership, as he graduates his money-making enterprises toward increasingly illegal and remunerative use. We meet him as he and his closest mate Pinball (William Ruane) sell cheap fags to the gentry on the street and in a local bar. But the result is slim pickings, and not nearly enough to realize his dreams of providing a fresh start for his mum Jean (Michelle Coulter) when she gets out of prison. While this appears the noble desire of a dutiful son, it will become clear that it's more the obsession of a boy too immature to put relationships in their proper perspective.

The misperception drives him to challenge mum's boyfriend Stan (Gary McCormack) who, in league with lowlife granddad Rab (Tommy McKee), attempts to use Liam to sneak drugs in to mum so she can make delivery to her fellow inmates on pre-sold orders. Liam aborts the plan and suffers a beating from his two role models, which brings him to sister Chantelle (Annmarie Fulton) for some first aid and shelter. Chantelle, estranged from mum for prior acts of selfishness, has a four-year old boy, Calum (Calum McAlees), whom she dotes on and on whom Liam lavishes his care and concern as well.

Liam extracts revenge for the beating by stealing then selling the cache of drugs hidden by Stan and realizing enough swag out of it to make possible a loan from a bank and a down payment on the caravan (trailer) he has had his heart set on for mum. As an emerging dope dealer, he needs to find a source for more product. But his activities don't go unnoticed, having come to the attention of big time mobster Tony (Martin McCardie) whose territory this is and whose gang is harbored at his posh health spa, a front for his real work. As Tony's men give the increasingly quirky Pinball a sobering cold shower, Tony proposes a place in the gang to Liam. Liam realizes the opportunity he's being offered and determines to make his mark by selling more dope than anyone else.

But there's a bigger test to pass. Tony puts a switchblade in Liam's hand and assigns him the job of using it on a man at a predetermined time and place. Liam proves himself by nearly doing it and earns the full respect of the gang. We wish he had resisted, but he didn't, and that's only the beginning of our disappointments in this bright lad's moral decisions.

Liam proves just how resourceful he can be by distributing drugs off the mopeds of friendly pizza delivery boys. Tony is so impressed with Liam's ingenuity he buys the pizza shop and offers it to Liam along with an upscale apartment. But first, Liam must "take care" of Pinball, who has freaked out and taken revenge for his demeaning treatment by stealing Tony's sports car and smashing it into the health spa.

But how far down this road will Liam go? Without revealing any more, it's fair to say that director Loach (Hidden Agenda, Riff Raff and, most notably, Kes) and team do not alter the realities in order to spare us the outcome. They have created a character that is as faithful to his inborn drive and environmental deprivations as anyone in these circumstances might be. This is an uncompromising look at life, with all its questionable triumphs and irreversible consequences, performed by a cast that is virtually untrained and entirely genuine, with a fully engaging performance by Martin Compston. Before the picture is over, Liam turns 16 and picks up his mum from the prison. He's about to learn something about adult needs and how far off track his naive disappointments will take him. Sweet Sixteen, indeed.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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