What a waste. It's your birthday. You're sixteen, did you know that? What are you gonna do?
Apparently, life in Scotland basically stinks. At least, that is the impression one gets from films showing contemporary life there. Scotland as shown in films like Trainspotting is a bleak landscape of shuttered factories, decrepit neighborhoods, and drugs.
The latest entry in the "Scotland Sucks" film festival is Sweet Sixteen, a depressing tale of broken families, oedipal struggles, drugs, crime, and murder. Just another day in Glasgow, it would seem. This hopeless tale of woe comes from director Ken Loach, a man known for his social conscience and the unflinching reality with which he depicts societal problems and class struggles.
Facts of the Case
Liam (Martin Compston) is a teenager living in the economically and spiritually depressed city of Greenock, essentially an industrial suburb of Glasgow. His mother, Jean (Michelle Coulter) is in prison; Liam lives with his abusive grandfather (Tommy McKee) and his mother's violent, drug-dealing boyfriend Stan (Gary McCormack). Liam pines for his mother and dreams of the happy, stable family life he will create—without Stan—when she is released. Liam and his friend Pinball (William Ruane) spend their days in petty crime and peddling cigarettes to make some spending money.
After a violent break with Stan and Grandpa, Liam goes to live with his older sister Chantelle (Annmarie Fulton) and her baby son Calum. Chantelle is taking training classes in order to work in a call center, and does her best to create a stable life for Calum and Liam. Still, Liam and Pinball are drawn by the promise of easy wealth to be gotten in the drug trade.
Liam shows himself quite adept at the drug business, and eventually attracts the notice of local racketeers. His success, however, comes at a price, as his relationships with Pinball and Chantelle are eventually destroyed, and the dream of a happy family life with his mother evaporates like a mirage.
Loach's best asset as a filmmaker is his ability to capture reality on film without hesitating and without ever shying away from life's nastier side. When Stan and Liam's grandfather beat the boy for refusing to deliver drugs to his mother in prison, Loach's camera sees every blow and every kick, and we hear every bit of the amazing string of foul language the two men direct at him. Nothing is sugar-coated. Regardless of whether or not one accepts Loach's version of reality, his dedication to realism is laudable. He fostered much of this realism by shooting the film in sequence and having the actors experience various scenes for the first time on camera, rather than giving them a complete script of everything that was to happen. When the camera catches their reactions, it is often capturing them is much the same state of surprise that the characters themselves might have experienced. This filming technique naturally means that a good portion of the dialogue in the film is improvised, rather than scripted, which further aids Loach's pursuit of realism.
All this and more interesting information is to be found in Loach's interesting and informative commentary track. However, there are a lot of lengthy gaps and pauses, frustrating amounts of dead time where he makes no comments at all. He does take the time to complain about the film's "18" rating from the British Board of Film Classification. This rating is the equivalent of an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, and means that no one under 18 may view the film, parental supervision or no. The rating was given primarily for the extremely harsh and sustained use of profanity in the movie. Loach contends that it is no worse than one hears in any schoolyard. Reform school yards, perhaps. I'm not terribly sensitive to bad language—I'm actually rather adept at using it from time to time—but the language here is pretty salty. It is probably not bad enough for an NC-17, but certainly warrants an R. Loach may be right in complaining, but his gripe should be directed at the BBFC's age classifications, rather than trying to minimize the harshness of the profanity. In any case, it is refreshing for American moviegoers to see for once that the film classification system in another country causes more frustration than ours.
Ratings squabbles aside, Loach's methods certainly seem to bear fruit. I never for a second doubted an actor's performance in the film. The performances that Loach gets from his actors are never anything short of genuine. When their talents are combined with Loach's minimalist direction and camera style, it feels like we may well be watching a documentary rather than a work of fiction. It is hard to single out any one member of the cast for more recognition than the rest. Martin Compston, a soccer player from Glasgow, carries off a very difficult role as Liam. This was his first acting experience, and he succeeds beautifully. The one performance that perhaps struck me as even more impressive than the rest, however, was Gary McCormack's portrayal of Stan. When an actor can portray a character so well as to evoke a sincere and visceral hatred from a viewer, he has truly done his job well.
The Sweet Sixteen DVD package is a solid piece of work from Lions Gate. Special features include the Loach commentary track mentioned above, as well as some extended/deleted scenes and outtakes, a trailer, and a few bonus trailers for other Lions Gate offerings. It all makes for a satisfactory collection of extras. The commentary track is even more important here than usual, as it allows Loach to explain his film to those of us who have never been to Scotland; it could have been better if he had talked more. The extended scenes aren't anything special, with the exception of one fairly funny outtake where an older gentleman keeps blowing the same line repeatedly.
Audio and video are about what you might expect for an indie film from Lions Gate. Video is presented in anamorphic widescreen. It has a bit of grain and grit to it, adding to the overall documentary feel of the film. The entire color spectrum is a bit muted and bluish, probably due in equal parts to deliberate choices in cinematography and the gloomy Scottish weather. There is significant pixel breakup and shimmer around hard edges and fine details, as well as some fairly bad edge enhancement. Fine textures are variable, standing out clearly in some scenes, appearing a bit soft in others. The audio is a Dolby 2.0 Surround mix that carries the dialogue and sound effects well. Loach's style doesn't lend itself to full-out wall-rattling sound. There is little use of surround channels except for a bit of ambient sound, and few directional effects or effects that move from speaker to speaker.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only real downfall of this film is that it has been made thousands of times in several different countries. The accents and scenery might change, but urban youth dramas all tend to blur together after a while. Sweet Sixteen is one of the better of the lot, but that doesn't help its getting lost in the collective echo of every movie ever made, regardless of country, that features young, underprivileged urban kids living desperate lives of crime and violence. On the other hand, the very universality of the situation allows Loach to make the very pointed class-oriented statement he wants to make with this film.
Sweet Sixteen is ultimately a successful depiction of life in impoverished Scotland; unfortunately, it also seems to be a successful depiction of life in many cities around the world, and therein lies the problem. It's a good film, but feels like one we've all seen many times before.
In any case, one wishes, for the sake of the Scots if nothing else, that someone, somewhere, could make a film about Scotland that doesn't make it look like a complete hole. I suppose there is always Braveheart, but after seeing films like Trainspotting and Sweet Sixteen, it's hard to see what they bothered fighting for.
Not guilty! Loach, Lions Gate, and all the rest are free to go.
We stand adjourned.
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