Personal and Political

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Review of 'Sweet Sixteen', director Ken Loach

Ken Loach is a master film-maker, so a new release by him is something to look forward to. For over four decades Loach has celebrated the heroism of working class people. His films always draw from ordinary working class lives extraordinarily moving and relevant stories. Sometimes they feature militant collective struggles that shake the system and its apologists. In other films Loach centres on intimate family dramas that reveal the politics of everyday life.

His new film, 'Sweet Sixteen', is vintage Loach of the second type. It tells the story of a working class family from Greenock, near Glasgow. The film begins with Liam waiting for his mother, Jean, to be released from jail for a drug offence. The day of her release will also be his 16th birthday. Liam is desperate to find a way of starting again, to create a new life for himself and his adored mum. He also wants to reunite Jean with his 17 year old sister, Chantelle. Chantelle, herself the single mother of a young baby, has given up on their mother. Jean has let herself be used by manipulative men and let her kids down too many times. She has lost Chantelle's trust, but not Liam's.

So, along with his best mate Pinball, Liam sets out to make some serious money. Their dreams of a better future focus on a caravan overlooking the beautiful Clyde estuary. Liam wants to buy it for his family to live in, away from drugs, bullying men, poverty and alienation.

The boys are right scallies, sticking two fingers up to authority and getting into every scam going. The brilliant aspect of the two boys' characters is that just as they are wild and savage, they are also innocent, lovable and very funny. But as the boys struggle to raise the cash they get stuck in a contradiction. The more canny and audacious they are in trying to get money to escape from crime and violence, the more deeply they get involved with drug dealers and the criminal underworld. Liam knows he is being dragged further and further into a vicious, dangerous world, but he cannot let go of his dream. Violent confrontation with the people holding him back becomes increasingly inevitable.

'Sweet Sixteen' is a brilliant account of the lives of people struggling to overcome their circumstances, dependencies and fears. It was highly acclaimed when it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, with special praise going to 17 year old Martin Compston, who plays Liam. Compston is not a professional actor--he is now a footballer--but Loach's skill in directing non-professional actors adds an authenticity and emotional power to his films. Compston's performance really is astounding. He is in practically every scene in the film and he holds all of them with gripping power. The rest of the cast give brilliant support.

There are uneasy moments in 'Sweet Sixteen', where powerful drama is mixed with gangster film style tension and violence. But overall Sweet Sixteen shows why people desperately try to break free, and why it is so difficult for them to succeed.