Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jun 07, 2003 10:00 pm 
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Perils of dropping out of school

The Scottish dialectal voices and accents of Sweet Sixteen would be pretty much incomprehensible for a North American. But the film provides subtitles throughout, so an American viewer can enjoy rather than wince at those accents and find the vowel shifts in the young voices rather reedy and cute. And Liam (Martin Compston), the 15-year old at the center of the story, is quite cute too, and positive and upbeat, very much a winner, with an ever ready smile even when things become more and more dicey toward the end. He's been compared logically to Truffaut's alter ego Antoine Doinel -- logically in cinematic terms that is, but a bit misleadingly in social terms since our wee Liam has no middleclass mum and dad. He has no dad at all, his mum is in jail, and her boyfriend Stan is a mean sadistic creep as well as a drug dealer for whom she's taking the rap. I'm not giving anything away: you'll gather all that in the first few minutes. And if you watch thinking this is going to be a story with a happy ending you're not paying attention.

What we have in this touching, straightforwardly plotted little Ken Loach film is the paradox of a winner on a losing downward path. Liam has a dream; well, several dreams. He wants to become rich, but rich for him means buying a "caravan" (a trailer) that's for sale for four thousand pounds and sits on a rise overlooking a desolate body of water somewhere in the provinces just away from a drab seacoast town called Greenock. He wants to get his mum back. And he wants to live in a normal sort of family in a decent quiet place with security. He picks the most obvious and most daring way to accomplish these goals. He gets his dumb, testosterone-soaked buddy Pinball (William Ruane), to join him in selling a big stash of smack that he steals from his mum's boyfriend -- He also took his granddad's false teeth. They'd just beaten him up for refusing to pass drugs to his mum in a kiss when they went on a jail visit. His revenge is bold. It's also funny and a lark. And he's the idol of his mate.

Liam gets the deed for the caravan and dreams that his mum, his sister Chantelle and her littleson Calum, will all live happily out there on the rise. Liam is a ballsy kid, but he keeps getting beaten up and Chantelle thinks the sad thing is it's not courage but that he doesn't care what happens to himself. That's what's wrong with his ambition: it's self-destructive. Being from where he comes from, he's wrongly programmed. Those of you who've been there know what I mean.

Liam's so successful selling drugs using a pizza delivery system that a gang boss who owns a health club hires him and sets him up with a continual supply of smack. They want honest clean reliable dealers who have initiative and don't use.

The trouble is that the gang members don't like Pinball and Pinball doesn't like them. They soak him in cold water to damp down his testosterone. Liam lets them cut Pinball out and Pinball, humiliated, burns down the caravan and takes insane vengeance on the gang boss: steals his flash red car and smashes it into the health club.

The gang leader tests Liam's toughness by ordering him to kill a man called Scullion. He's just on the point of doing it when they stop him and celebrate his manhood: he's got the job. In mafia terms he's a made man at going-on-sixteen. Besides "initiative" words like "organization" and "motivation" are used. The boy's got game. He's got ambition. He's got that smile. He's offered a nice furnished flat in a new housing block the gang kingpin owns and he can bring Jean (his mum) and Chantelle and Calum to live there.

But Chantelle doesn't want this. She says their mum didn't want either of them and is no good.

Liam has a showdown with Pinball. He goes to confront him carrying the knife the gang gave him for the hit he didn't have to do. He has no intention of hurting Pinball but Pinball, who was nothing but a brain dead extension of Liam, thinks he does and grabs the knife and slashes his own face. Liam calls an ambulance and leaves.

When Jean gets out Liam, in a smart new suit, takes her to the new flat and gives a big party. Catering is by the pizza shop and there's someone to spin disks. Chantelle comes after all with Calum and it looks as if Liam's dream will come true. But in the middle of all the merriment Jean sits looking tired and uneasy. Next day Liam wakens with a headache to find Chantelle cleaning up in the kitchen but his mum gone. He takes a taxi to Stan's place and there she is. He stabs Stan and flees. At the end he's on the beach looking desperate and Chantelle calls on his mobile and says "Where are you?" and he says "I don't know." She says the police are looking for him and things could have been so good and "What a shame."

"Do you realize," she says, "It's your sixteenth birthday today." "My battery is running out," he says, symbolically. His time is running out and the film ends in a scene much like the end of The 400 Blows.

The film's outcome is gloomily deterministic but most of it is lighthearted and larky. The message is that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, you can't make a good life by dropping out of school and selling drugs, no matter how brilliantly and ballsily, but Loach allows Liam's positive youthful energy to dominate, even if he's doomed. How can such a winner have no chance? Whether this contradiction is aesthetically satisfying, the film is surprisingly good-natured and the scenes are convincing and alive. You enjoy the fun as it crescendos with the flat-warming party, nursing a growing sinking feeling that it's going to go bad really soon.

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