- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

The innocuously titled “Sweet Sixteen” is, in fact, a bitter, bleak little tale, set in an economically depressed shipyard town near Glasgow, Scotland.

Paul Laverty’s screenplay won top honors at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and I’m a little perplexed as to why the French cineastes were so impressed.

“Sixteen” — on paper, at least — is riddled with cliches and an ending that can be spotted miles away. (Incidentally, the script, although written in English, is delivered in Scottish accents so thick that the movie warranted subtitles.)

Liam (Martin Compston), a fatherless high school dropout eking out a living selling cheap cigarettes to drunks in local taverns with best pal Pinball (William Ruane), is on the cusp of his 16th birthday — and probably just as many street fights.

His mom, Jean (Michelle Coulter), is in jail for drug use, and she has a hooligan boyfriend, Stan (Gary McCormack), who risks prolonging her sentence by running, with her complicity, a boutique drug racket in the prison.

Forlorn and poor, Liam passes through the same gritty coming-of-age experiences — those of a tough and clever kid with no adult supervision — that movies such as Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” have been exploring for decades.

But “Sixteen’s” players, most impressively the young Mr. Compston and Annmarie Fulton, who plays Liam’s straight-arrow sister, act with such self-assurance and ferocity that the movie rises above its threadbare formula.

British director Ken Loach, too, deserves credit, mostly for leaving his actors alone and not cluttering “Sixteen’s” simple story with fussy stylizations.

Hoping to raise enough money to buy a trailer for himself and his mom on her release, Liam enlists Pinball in a dicey scheme to steal drugs from his rotten grandfather (Tommy McKee) and Stan and frame the police while they’re at it.

The knavish “wee boys” wind up in the cross hairs of a local drug kingpin (Martin McCardie) who, impressed by Liam’s know-how and chutzpah, outfits the resilient teen in a new suit of clothes and an apartment with a river view.

The dilemma: He wants Liam to get rid of the expendable Pinball, his closest friend and de facto brother, setting up a classic internal conflict.

Does Liam accept the lifestyle upgrade and the financial security, or does he keep his friend?

This is a story that has been told many times before, but “Sweet Sixteen” tells it well.

** 1/2

TITLE: “Sweet Sixteen”

RATING: R (Pervasive profanity; some violence; drug content)

CREDITS: Directed by Ken Loach. Produced by Rebecca O’Brien. Screenplay by Paul Laverty. Photography by Barry Ackroyd.

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes, in Scottish-accented English with English subtitles.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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