When we first meet 15-year-old Liam (Martin Compston), his shenanigans — aided and abetted by his best mate, Pinball (William Ruane) — leave a latter-day Artful Dodger impression. Director Ken Loach (Bread and Roses) seems to be setting the stage for one of those tartly comic, British lower-class melodramas featuring an appealingly cheeky laddie (Billy Elliot, for example). But it soon becomes fairly obvious that we’re in store for something rougher with a deeper and harder core. Liam steals our sympathy, though, and even when he boyishly trembles on the threshold of murder, we allow him to keep it — or even give him more.
But by that time, Sweet Sixteen has earned its pathos with the cinematic honesty of Paul Laverty’s script, Loach’s direction and the performances, all of which belie the quaintness of sweeter and hollower British melodramas such as Billy Elliot or Bend It Like Beckham.
Laverty’s plot is motivated by Liam’s dysfunctional mother, Jean (Michelle Coulter), who’s doing prison time for her abusive boyfriend, Stan (Gary McCormack), a penny-ante heroin dealer who would be kingpin. In a moment of filial heroism — and Oedipal acting-out that ultimately erupts in Sweet Sixteen’s climax — Liam defies Stan’s minor-league villainy and ends up seeking refuge in the home of his sister, Chantelle (Annmarie Fulton), a 17-year-old single mom. For Liam, Chantelle lovingly and bravely shoulders the responsibilities and duties of mother and, at times, platonic wife. She’s as dedicated to her brother — and to avoiding Jean and Jean’s mistakes — as Liam is to his delusive and obsessive attempts to protect his mother, make her happy and unknowingly punish himself in the process.
In lesser hands, of course, this story could collapse into soap opera. But by employing a cast of mostly non-actors whom he follows like a documentary filmmaker, Loach has made a new, British kind of neo-realist film that transcends melodrama into his usual social commentary — and into true modern tragedy.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.