" I don’t like kids. They smell like TV. "
— Mischa Barton, Lawn Dogs

MRQE Top Critic

Jaffa

Jaffa views the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through the lens of young love. —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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Director Ken Loach is known for his working-class, common-man movies.Sweet Sixteen is the first one I’ve seen, but I can already tell he’s not someone you look to for escapism.

Mama’s Boy

Parentless sister and brother try to look out for each other
Parentless sister and brother try to look out for each other

Sweet Sixteen stars Martin Compston as Liam, the 15-year-old protagonist. (Sweet Sixteen is in English, but the characters speak with such thick Scottish accents that Loach wisely provides subtitles.) His mother is in jail, and the movie opens on her boyfriend, her father, and Liam driving to see her. As they arrive, boyfriend Stan (Gary McCormack) gives Liam a packet of cocaine to smuggle inside his mouth. Liam is to kiss his mother and pass her the drugs.

But Liam is loyal to his mother, and Stan can go to hell. Liam refuses to kiss his mum and afterwards, out of sight of the prison, Stan beats him and leaves him to walk home.

Growing So Fast

Liam and his friend Pinball (William Ruane) goof off like 15-year-olds do. But Liam gets some not-so-childish ideas. For one, he’d like to buy a caravan (i.e., a trailer home) for him and his mother so they don’t have to rely on the likes of Stan. There’s one that Liam thinks is paradise. It’s on a spit of land beside the bay, and it’s only 6,000 pounds. He and Pinball sell stolen cigarettes for money; maybe they can sell something more valuable.

Liam is no drug dealer, but Stan is. Liam and Pinball watch him from their hiding spot in an adjacent building and discover where he keeps his stash. Liam steals the drugs, then calls the cops on Stan with an anonymous tip to cover his tracks.

Liam’s ingenious ploy works, and soon he and Pinball are selling enough cocaine to buy the caravan. They’re also in over their heads, as the established drug dealers discover they’re being challenged by a punk kid. But Liam makes a good impression on the local kingpin and works his way into the organization.

Only Sixteen

Meanwhile, Liam’s sister Chantelle (Annmarie Fulton) and her young son Calum (Calum McAlees) try to cope on their own. Chantelle is a single mother, and with her own mother in prison, the only support she has comes from Liam. She desperately wants him to settle down to help her with Calum, but like most 15-year-old boys, Liam is a hothead.

By the end of the movie, Liam has just turned 16. He’s only three months older than he was at the beginning, but he’s shot into adulthood. Pinball is missing or dead. His mother has rejected him and his offer of a place to live. He’s wanted by police for serious crimes. All he can do is call his big sister and tell her how scared he is.

Parentless Kids

Judging from Loach’s reputation, Sweet Sixteen is more about the troubles of parentless kids than about Liam specifically. Poverty is the least of Liam’s worries: he is easily able to find work, food, and shelter. The trouble is that he has nobody to guide him. It’s not just that he lacks an authority figure to keep him in check, it’s that he has nobody to take charge, to be the boss, to offer confidence and wisdom and experience while Liam learns about life.

In other words, it’s not the town of Greenock who needs Liam to have parents — to keep him from becoming a thug or committing crimes — it’s Liam himself who needs someone to lean on. When the first man to offer that sort of relationship is a gangster, it’s no wonder that Liam follows.

Disengage

The message is valid, and the story feels truthful and honest. But the movie isn’t completely satisfying or engaging. Compared to the brutal life depicted in City of God, for example, the crimes and hardships of a 15-year-old white male in a socialist Western European nation are hardly compelling.

The movie itself seems to deliberately distance the audience from Liam. When he and Pinball watch Stan from across the way, it’s the same way that we look at them — from a distance, observing but unseen, and never close enough to intervene. There are practically no closeups in the movie. The camera’s philosophy is “don’t get too close; don’t help out; let them make their own mistakes.”

But if we’re not invited to do any more than watch, then we never get sucked through the screen and into the movie; we stay in the theater the whole time. And for two hours, we might as well be watching TV.