Don't go into this expecting light family entertainment. Ken Loach doesn't do fun. If consequence-free hi-jinks are your thing then head off to the sweet embrace of Uncle Walt. Don't expect tub-thumping, down-with-the-state propaganda either. Loach is social, not socialist, a director who doesn't shy away from hard and painful truths, but who also finds joy, excitement and humour in the strangest, bleakest places.
Teenager Liam (Martin Compston) dreams of a better life. Stuck in the estates of Greenock in Scotland, he knows all he needs is a few thousand quid to give his mum - soon to be released from prison - - a better life. So, together with best mate Pinball (William Ruane), Liam embarks on a series of dangerous schemes to secure the cash. But events take a downturn when the lads start rubbing shoulders with the town's drug barons. Can they - or their friendship - survive for long?
As amusing as it is raw and brutal, as heart-achingly uplifting as it is nail-munchingly exciting, this is Just William meets The Godfather on a grey, syringe-strewn council estate. Compston was plucked, in classic Loach-style, straight from a Greenock school, but few RSC-trained luvvies could cope with shifts from comedy to tragedy as well as this. Charismatic, funny and intelligent, Compston's Liam is a compelling hero, trying to balance loyalty to his friends and family with the demands of Scotland's underworld.
In fact, there isn't a false note from any of the cast of unknowns. Where you expect caricatures (the brutal boyfriend, the jovial buddy, the redemption-seeking mum) you find characters. Sure, the slurred, rolling lingo of the Greenock estates is tricky to pick up on (as we write, Icon is debating whether to subtitle some or all of the film), but it adds a deep sense of place, time and community that pulls you in even further.
Sidestep the multiplex and hunt Sweet Sixteen out. You'll thank us. You really will.
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Bittersweet, funny, exciting and stomach-churning, Sweet Sixteen rubs your nerves 'til they're raw and bleeding. No doubt about it: this is Ken Loach's best film since Kes.