The best British film of its time?
Ken Loach is the quintessential left-wing filmmaker. There seems to be an underwritten assumption that this places a limitation on his work, and one critic bemoans watching a film with a pre-ordained theoretical framework as if other directors make a film without thinking about it first. Loach undeniably presents a recognisable worldview, but his work is primarily humanist, even humanitarian; he shows us an individual story rather than building a political allegory.
In Sweet Sixteen, Liam (Martin Compston) lives in working-class Greenock, near Glasgow. His mother is in jail and addicted to drugs. On the outside she lives with Stan, a drug dealer. Liam wants to take his mother away from this life and provide a fresh start, and to find a home where they can build a new life with sister Chantelle on her release, the day of his sixteenth birthday. The painful irony emerges that the only way he can build this new life is to become a drug dealer himself. As he becomes further embroiled in the business and his aspirations change, his family falls apart and he betrays his friendships; is it the drugs that cause the crisis, or the capitalist pressures exerting their influence over the fragile family bond? Scratch this.
Realism has become a set of cinematic conventions by now, a lazy shorthand for tragedy and humiliation, running mascara and glimpsed underwear aspiring to the epithet “gritty.” Mike Leigh comes to mind as a director engulfed in constructing dramas trying to simulate “real” people. Sweet Sixteen is unique because it is so clearly a collaborative effort rather than one man’s vision. The unfolding events take on an arbitrary quality because Loach’s guiding hand is not evident. What we see on screen is down to Martin Compston’s performance as Liam, Paul Laverty’s script, the rest of the cast, and Greenock as much as Ken Loach. The trust between the cast and production crew must be absolute, and the freedom they allow one another lends the film a sense of unpredictability. It feels loose, improvised, almost as if any one of the actors may suddenly take it in their own direction and topple the structure. It is exciting.
The group achieves a beguiling naturalism by using untrained actors and their own accents. Films usually require the viewer to suspend their disbelief, but in this case it is unnecessary; there is no disbelief. Each action becomes removed from the plane of celluloid reality and exists in relation to the viewer’s actual experience. Liam takes his six-year-old nephew on a joyride with his best friend Pinball, and you are viscerally exhilarated at their recklessness. It may not seem up there with cinema’s most dramatic moments, but as you watch it the possible consequences seem more catastrophic than anything that could befall Zion in The Matrix.
The film’s events are this effective due to a painstaking attention to naturalistic detail, though it could be a fluke of improvisation. When Liam and Pinball first find the caravan, Pinball immediately runs round to the other side and swears at his friend through the windows. You laugh watching it, caught unawares by the suspicion that Loach has not made a film at all, but simply observed a couple of teenagers going about their usual business. Similarly, a handshake between the friends agreeing not to use any of the cocaine is concluded by the remark “Sweaty Betty.” Such an innocuous comment, and yet so rarely are these moments produced on film.
This heightened sense of realism leads us to enter into a willing sympathy with the central characters, and creates a very real tension as you watch the film. At one point Liam is asked to stab a man in the bathroom of a club to prove his loyalty to the gang he works for. There is no Hitchcock-style manipulation of shots and music to simulate suspense. Liam stands in the back room, alone, the music from the bar beating away off camera. He paces a little, practises stabbing a box, and looks like a fifteen-year-old for the first time in the film. The suspense comes from the situation and our sympathy with Liam, rather than from any treatment or elaborate artfulness. When the call eventually comes Liam runs at the man, only to be stopped by the gang members before he can strike; it was simply a test. The sense of relief for the viewer is almost euphoric. Our identification with the character at this point overrides any critical examination of our reaction; we are relieved because Liam does not have to kill. Better not to question the assumption that he had to if you wish to remain a liberal. It is a masterful effect by all involved.
It comes to pass that, on one level, we become Liam for the duration of the film. The caravan is not just a caravan, but becomes invested with Liam’s (our) hope for a proper home, a proper family. It is freedom, and its simplicity makes it all the more convincing. His mother betrays us as much as him when she admits what she really thinks of the idea. The viewer’s complete identification with Liam opens up a very interesting moral dimension. We discover that he has killed best friend Pinball (above right) after the deed, and it is a shocking and uncomfortable moment. Yet we do not judge him against the usual moral criteria; just for a moment you get a flash that Pinball may be better off dead, that any conception of life having an inherent value is a cruel joke. You implicitly understand that conscience is a luxury that Liam, and by extension we, cannot afford.
Liam beats his sister Chantelle, and we beat her with him. A duality is achieved. We understand that Liam’s mother is unworthy of his efforts, and that Chantelle is his only remaining family. But simultaneously we are Liam, and to understand this would be to admit defeat. Better to beat the convenient excuse. The space is opened up between our understanding of the unfolding narrative, and our imagined, direct experience of it. This sensation is the only true realisation of that oft aimed for “authenticity.” the immediate experience of all the savagery and innocence of youth.
All of this produces a subdued, inevitable tragedy. While a filmmaker like Lars Von Trier subjects his characters to an uncompromisingly puritanical moral scheme, Loach and team allow the viewer to appreciate the events in their contingency. The characters’ actions are decided as a reaction to a circumstance, rather than from a learned morality. The people of Sweet Sixteen are not positioned on a scale of good and evil, which does not exist in the film’s conception, but are continually reformed by circumstance, opportunity (or lack of it), and their relationships. The externals of the story are thus: Liam steals drugs, becomes a dealer, kills his best friend, beats his sister, kills his mother’s boyfriend. It reads like a classic downward spiral drama, Requiem for a Dream without the budget or the beauty. But this is not the tragedy of a boy getting in over his head, as so many filmmakers would have done it. This is the tragedy of an economic system that gives the boy little choice but this. That is for the thesis though, and comes after the film has finished.
The motifs used in the film are few, and lightly done. The caravan, then the flat, point out the dream of a family just as much as a home, and the importance of a space for it to operate in. Liam is always outside until he smashes the window of Stan’s house after the caravan burns. He has to take matters into his own hands; the smashed glass illustrates destruction as his only way in. The sea, the elemental force living on its own terms, represents a freedom worth striving for by any means. Of course this is an illusion; the tides are controlled by the moon’s unseen hand. This knowledge does not make the illusion any less brilliant, though, and the same could be said of this film. Loach may well have made the best British film of his generation.