Whether you agree or disagree with Ken Loach’s socialist ideals, there is no denying that his film are an important significance to the history of British made films. He also has the accolades to back it up as he is only one of nine filmmakers to have won the Palme d’Or award twice. His most notable work Kes is an important film in the history of British culture, it showed how dramatic the struggles of the “ordinary” people and supplied them with a voice. I expect many of you will be thinking this is where my love for Ken Loach films began, but although I may have seen Kes first, it didn’t resonate or shock me as much as his 2002 film Sweet Sixteen.
Set in Scotland, Sweet Sixteen tells the troubles and tribulations of Liam (Marin Compston), a teenager who comes from a troubled background. His mother Jean (Michelle Coulter) is currently imprisoned wrongly after protecting her drug dealing boyfriend Stan (Gary McCormack). Liam vows to turn his life around and start a fresh life with his mother when she get’s out of prison. To raise the money for a dream caravan, Liam along with his friend Pinball (William Ruane) start working schemes which soon puts them out of their depths.
Much like anyone starring in a Ken Loach film, the actors are usually unknown and quite possible their first time acting. Martin Compston falls into this category and given that he’s the lead role, it must have been an incredible amount of responsibility and pressure to carry this film as someone who possibly hadn’t considered becoming an actor. But, like most first timers in Loach films, Martin Compston completely knocks it out of the park and from the moment we’re introduced to Liam, you immediately develop this willingness to want to see him succeed, you want him to win and get out of his awful life. Martin Compston has since gone on to having a pretty successful TV career and is one of those actors who I feel genuinely proud of when I think about how much of an impressive start he made.
In fairness, everyone acting in this film deserves some credit for how natural their characters feel, but someone who deserve an extra level of respect is Annmarie Fulton. She plays Liam’s sister Chantelle who is there to serve as the angel on Liam’s shoulder. Everyone in this film has a darker, nastier side to them, but Chantelle is the only character that doesn’t have a nastier side. While others around him couldn’t care less about what happens to Liam, Chantelle is the only one who genuinely cares and worries about him, there’s a great insight into this when she tells Liam how she remembers him fighting with older kids and how it broke her heart because he was doing it because he didn’t care abut himself.
Whenever there is a great director, there is often a great writer alongside them. In the case with Loach he of course partners up with screenwriter Paul Laverty in his fourth collaboration with Loach. Some would argue that it is Laverty’s writing which truly makes a Ken Loach film remarkable and in the case of Sweet Sixteen you can start to see why. This film is just so raw and gritty, the locations aren’t exactly a location scout or managers dream, the dialogue isn’t exactly Shakespearean as Loach like to use a lot of local dialect. A funny story about this film is that where they film Sweet Sixteen, the Scottish accent is very heavy, so much so that this film often comes with subtitles as standard, even in English speaking countries! But this authenticity is what is being striven towards and not having something raw and gritty is an injustice to the style Ken Loach has built throughout his career.
I don’t really want to give away any indication on whether Liam is able to accomplish what he’s set out to do, but something I can say is that there are plenty of hardships along the way. Being a Ken Loach film, you can probably guess that not everything is plain sailing, there are very few glimpses of genuine happiness in Sweet Sixteen and these setback stack on top of each other, making each one harder hitting than the last. You just can’t quite believe the things Liam has to do to achieve what he wants, bearing in mind that he is still not an adult yet.
These realizations are what make Sweet Sixteen such a powerful film. Whereas films generally serve the purpose to entertain or to escape from our world, Ken Loach and Paul Laverty remind us that stories can be found in the most ordinary places of our world. I think those who don’t particularly like Ken Loach film because of his obvious political and social commentary may be a bit more lenient with Sweet Sixteen as it’s commentary isn’t as obvious as Loach’s other films, what they’ll be more lenient about is the empathy they’ll feel towards Liam as we’ve all had to fight for a dream against consistent opposition from the world around us and even people close to us. Sweet Sixteen is just yet another example of how Loach has never lost his touch from the very beginning of his film career and he still knows how to give a voice to the “ordinary” people.