`Sixteen' sees a family collide with hard reality

October 10, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Intolerable Cruelty isn't the only Baltimore opening that comes adorned with Simon & Garfunkel gags. Near the start of Sweet Sixteen, a couple of Scottish delinquents hawk hot cigarettes at a pub. The barkeeper calls the two pals Simon & Garfunkel and orders them out. They each flip him the bird and squeal, "Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson."

The saloon man makes a good call. Pinball is tall and scrawny like young Garfunkel; Liam compact and four-square, like Simon. And this duo is also destined to break up.

Sweet Sixteen explores what drives kith and kin together and apart. It's the best feature from socially conscious British filmmaker Ken Loach since he made his legendary coming-of-age movie Kes back in 1969. Loach attunes his mikes and cameras to a complex and appealing central character. If Stephen Frears hadn't used the title a couple of years ago, it could have been called Liam.

Liam's mother, Jean, has been serving a prison term on a drug rap she took for Stan, her latest low-life boyfriend. Liam dreams of taking her away from Stan and from her foul-mouthed, feckless dad. He hopes to buy a home for just the two of them. Liam's target date is her release date: the day before his 16th birthday. He even fantasizes about reuniting Jean with her estranged daughter, Chantelle, a night-school student and single mom. The tough-minded Chantelle considers Jean poison. Yet Liam's pursuit of his goal is so selfless and infectious that Chantelle and her wee son Calum get caught up in his quest.

Loach conveys Liam's delusions and reality with simple directness and authority; the director allows the movie's scope and power to sneak up on the audience. Liam's motives may be pure, but his modest frame contains pieces of Vito, Sonny and Michael Corleone. To give his family a fresh start, he moves from peddling smokes to pushing heroin. He becomes part of the local crime syndicate. First he piggy-backs drug drops to pizza deliveries. The pies get cold; the narcotics business skyrockets. Then Liam's crime boss buys the pizzeria and Liam takes charge of the operation, delivering drugs and pizzas simultaneously. Nearly everyone is happy; only one angry mother objects. In short, Loach plays out the moral trajectory of The Godfather with juveniles and small-time thugs in Greenock, Scotland.

Under Loach's guidance, first-time actor Martin Compston mingles optimistic fighting spirit with pangs of conscience and trepidation. As Liam tries to balance criminal demands with his loyalty to the volatile Pinball and his determination to found a steady household, Loach tenderly dissects Liam's point of view. Instinct and calculation war within him, but what cripples him is his idee fixe. Chantelle, who always dresses Liam's wounds, remembers how he fought older boys when they were both in a children's home: "You didn't fight them because you were brave; you fought them because you didn't care what happened to you. That's what broke my heart."

The speech is a stunner: Annmarie Fulton, a trained actress making her on-camera debut, carries it off with a ravaged veracity. And thanks to Compston and a crazy-eyed non-professional named William Ruane, Liam and Pinball generate a startling zigzag chemistry comparable to Keitel's Charlie and De Niro's Johnny Boy in Mean Streets.

In its peak moments, the movie delivers, all at once, genuine street wisdom and psychology and wrenching expressions of family and friendship. Loach could still be freer, more lyrical and inventive. For poetic impact, nothing in the movie matches the gorgeous opening scene of street kids gazing at the stars and contemplating that Saturn's days last only 10 hours. But Sweet Sixteen packs a full emotional spectrum into an hour and 46 minutes. The title, of course, carries a wicked sting; the film proves fiercely bittersweet.

Sweet Sixteen

Starring Martin Compston, Annmarie Fulton and William Ruane

Directed by Ken Loach

Rated R

Released by Lions Gate

Time 106 minutes

Sun Score ***1/2

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