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Photograph by Josh Barratt

Community Chest: Annmarie Fulton attends to Martin Compston in 'Sweet Sixteen.'

Born Under Punches

Ken Loach takes all the fun out of being a working-class criminal in 'Sweet Sixteen'

By Richard von Busack

IT'S ESSENTIAL to an artist to have the kind of self-confidence that isn't shaken by trends. On the other hand, the traditional qualities of the Ken Loach film are becoming hard to congratulate. It's apparent that the grotty excitement of movies like Trainspotting didn't shake Loach or disturb his course; for 40 years, he's never veered from the dogmatism that says that poor people can have no fun that is not sordid or will not be punished. Sweet Sixteen is another Loach film written by screenwriter Paul Laverty (Bread and Roses, My Name Is Joe and Carla's Song, all honorable films, all films it would be pretty hard to see twice). Like Laverty, Loach is an ex-lawyer by trade; like Laverty, Loach a social worker by temperament.

In the town of Greenock, on the outskirts of Glasgow, 15-year-old Liam (Martin Compston) is visiting his mother in jail. Her current boyfriend, Stan (Gary McCormack, the bass player for the Exploited), wants Liam to pass some drugs to her via mouth, during a kiss. The boy balks and gets into a fight, kicking his granddad in the balls to get away. Going to live with his sister (Annmarie Fulton), who has escaped the toxic family, Liam comes up with a scheme to steal and sell Stan's cache of heroin to try to get money for a place where he and his mom can live.

Since almost all work has fled this former ship-building region, the only options are selling drugs or delivering pizzas. Initially, Liam's expectations are so low that when a successful local gangster (Martin McCardie) asks the young Liam, "Do you know what initiative means, kid?" the boy shoots back, "Laughing at my bosses' jokes?"

In the last third, Sweet Sixteen turns formulaic, partially because Loach endorses Liam's simplistic view of what it means to have initiative. When Liam hooks up with the local gangsters, his success puts him in opposition to his old chum Pinball. The last third seems like emergency writing, as if Loach realized they were endorsing crime by suggesting that someone could make a success of it (and in Loach's doctrinaire films, the only way to become a success is to betray one's loved ones).

In widescreen, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd's views of Greenock show the Scottish city as beautifully situated as Sausalito, except for the layer of economic depression that blankets the area like the perennial clouds. Sweet Sixteen features immaculate first-time acting by Compston, and low-class humor leavens the film: Stan's brace of pit bulls are named Hairy Balls and No Balls. Loach and Laverty made this film with the best intentions. If only it weren't so easy to see what was going to happen, to anticipate that we'll see our hero end as a hopeless young man standing immobilized on what could be called The 400 Blows Beach.

Sweet Sixteen (R; 105 min.), directed by Ken Loach, written by Paul Laverty, photographed by Barry Ackroyd and starring Martin Compston, Annmarie Fulton, Gary McCormack and Martin McCardie, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the June 5-11, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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