Removed from context, the decisions made by Martin Compston, the scruffy young hero of Ken Loach's heartbreaking coming-of-age drama Sweet Sixteen, are no nobler than those of any other thug destined for juvenile hall and long-term prison runs. Nor are they much different from those of a great entrepreneur, except that his brilliant innovations are in the drug trade, the only business outlet available for his fecund mind. Yet Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty, who last collaborated on 1998's equally powerful My Name Is Joe, make Compston's motivations so clear that he can't be reduced to a businessman or a crook, but someone whose special decency and heart leads him to ruin. With startling clarity and dreadful logic, Loach and Laverty make sense of every bad choice Compston makes until he runs out of options, locked into a destiny that he can't escape, mainly because his good intentions are clouded by tragic naivete. When the film opens, he and best friend William Ruane are running small-time scams on the Glasgow streets, charging local kids for peeks through a telescope and hitting up barflies for cheap stolen cigarettes. With his junkie mother (Michelle Coulter) scheduled for prison release in less than two months, Compston schemes to raise money for a double-wide by the sea, where the two of them can get a fresh start together, away from his drug-running stepfather's sinister influence. After swiping his stepfather's stash–and, in an even more daring bit of pranksterism, his grandpa's dentures–Compston and Ruane quickly move enough dope to make a down payment. But their small business is co-opted by a local kingpin (Martin McCardie) who recognizes Compston's ingenuity and brings him under his wing, helping him establish a clever distribution front with his buddies in pizza delivery. Though the parallels to François Truffaut's The 400 Blows are abundant, especially in an homage to the famous closing shot, Sweet Sixteen has even more in common with the elemental force of an Italian neo-realist film like The Bicycle Thief, where every action stems from a character's basic needs. For all his brightness and tenacity, Compston has a childlike need for his mother's love, even though it's not forthcoming. The fact that he sticks to a dead-end path anyway, in spite of the intervention of his older and wiser sister (the touching Annmarie Fulton), gives him a mangy integrity that's moving and heroic, bolstered by an unaffected lead performance that testifies to Loach's skill with non-professionals. Coming after a few recent efforts that resembled placards as much as movies, Loach returns to presenting his socio-political agenda on a more convincingly human scale.
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