Sweet Sixteen

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Movie Review by Lisa Henshall

Starring: Martin Compston, Michelle Coulter, Gary McCormack, William Ruane, Annmarie Fulton

Director: Ken Loach

At the time of viewing, Columbia Pictures were still unsure whether to release this film with or without subtitles to make it easier for non-Scottish audiences. Let me assure you this is not meant in a patronising way but is a genuinely difficult decision to take. The version I watched was subtitled for the first 30 minutes and it was invaluable for following the plot. The problem is not just a matter of understanding the actors’ Scottish accents, because similar arguments were touted when TRAINSPOTTING was released. The difficulty with Loach’s film is that the cast are all speaking colloquial Scottish, so without an interpreter it can be hard to follow what they are talking about.

However, once you get the hang of it, everything’s fine and SWEET SIXTEEN is a fantastic film, sometimes warm and funny, sometimes heart-rending. Set in the former-shipbuilding area of Greenock (not far from Glasgow) the story centres around 15 year-old Liam and his attempts to save up enough money to make a better life for his family. Liam’s mum Jean is in prison for drug trafficking (having taken the rap for her boyfriend Stan), but she’s due for release in a few months. Liam desperately wants to reunite his headstrong sister Chantelle, her baby son and his Mum, and to get them all into a new home, away from Stan’s influence.

Paul Laverty, the screenwriter, says, “The genesis of SWEET SIXTEEN may have been back with the making of MY NAME IS JOE…[with] dozens of characters screaming for attention…there was one persistent character who would not give up or shut up…. That voice became the character of Liam.” Auditioning hundreds of teenagers in sports clubs and schools in the area they eventually found Martin Compston – he’d never acted before but you wouldn’t know it. He has a natural presence and his confidence lights up the screen.

You know Liam’s up against it and it’s not long before you realise he’s not going to manage it without doing some dodgy dealings…but will he get away with it and reunite his family? SWEET SIXTEEN is at times poignant, funny, moving, frightening and above all powerful. I was surprised that overall the film wasn’t quite as down-beat as I’d expected it to be, and was pleasantly surprised at times with the way Loach handles the occasional lighter scenes. Considering the only cast member with any acting experience is Stan (played by Gary McCormack, whose done some TV Drama and stars in Scorsese’s forthcoming GANGS OF NEW YORK), the other cast members are all excellent. Liam’s best mate Pinball (played by William Ruane) deserves particular praise for his realistic portrayal of a very complex character.

All in all a very worthwhile experience…but just maybe not the kind of film you’d take someone to see on a first date.

5 out of 6 stars