There are two kinds of Ken Loach films — those that keep the flame of class rage, and those that keep the flame of class rage and still manage to live and breathe. Along with Mike Leigh and, on and off, Stephen Frears, Ken Loach plugs away incorruptibly at tracking the shifting miseries of his beloved British working classes. He can be funny, and soulful and complex (his 1969 film, Kes, a lovingly poetic portrait of a provincial English boy’s love for his pet falcon, remains his best), but when he’s on a vulgar-Marxist tear, his sense of proportion goes AWOL, along with his sense of humor. His international movies often reflect the battle fatigue of a scold who’s lived too long off his hatred of all forms of institutional power, especially American power. Asked to contribute to a multinational collection of short films on 9/11, Loach served up a screed on American treachery in Chile. Point taken, but his monomaniacal callousness toward the Twin Tower victims was shocking.
This is one reason why Loach’s films continue to carry off important prizes in Europe, while in this country they barely scrape by at the box office. Like Leigh, Loach can be not merely an opponent but a gifted hater. His domestic films — Riff-Raff, My Name Is Joe — are funnier and subtler, but even in some of these, Loach, like many middle-class champions of the poor and oppressed, has a habit of defining his working-class characters solely by their oppression, either idealizing them (in the awful Hidden Agenda) or rendering them so degraded by their circumstances (Ladybird, Ladybird) that it’s hard to find anything to like in them at all.
Loach has lightened up in recent years, in part because of his collaboration with screenwriter Paul Laverty. Laverty isn’t above waxing glib himself on the subject of the demon-imperialist United States (Carla’s Song). But on home territory he has a deft touch, a respectful feel for the proletarian life, and a fluency with regional dialect that has brought a sorely needed sense of fun to Loach’s movies. Sweet Sixteen, their latest, which won Best Screenplay at Cannes last year, is easily as good as their last joint effort, My Name Is Joe, and probably better. The movie — subtitled, mercifully — is set in Greenock, a grim town just along the river Clyde from Glasgow, and a prime casualty of the collapse of the Scottish shipbuilding industry. It offers a landscape (the movie has a lowering beauty, invoked by Loach’s longtime cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd) that can be seen all over post–World War II Britain — stunning scenery disfigured by ugly housing projects hastily thrown up to rehouse inner-city slum dwellers. Stripped of all community amenities, Greenock is a place where booze and drugs fill the gap created by rampant unemployment and collapsed families, and where it’s hard for a kid to grow up unscathed by either or both.
Liam (Martin Compston), a 15-year-old with acne-pocked skin and a whisper of fuzz on his upper lip, is emblematic of such urban decay. But he’s also a real, live boy, a charming prankster who passes his time goosing the local police and selling cheap cigarettes with his feral pal Pinball (William Ruane) while waiting for his mother, Jean (Michelle Coulter), to be released from prison on his 16th birthday. Unlike his older sister Chantelle (Annmarie Fulton), a single parent who has long since lost hope in their mother and is determined to build a stable life for herself and her toddler, Liam loves Jean with puppyish adoration. When he spots a vacant mobile home with a breathtaking view of the river, he resolves to raise enough money to buy it and glue the family back together, minus his feckless grandfather (Tommy McKee) and his mother’s deadbeat boyfriend Stan (Gary McCormack), with whom he now lives. Liam is a resourceful, imaginative lad, and it isn’t long before his entrepreneurial talent is spotted by Tony (Martin McCardie), a smooth local kingpin who grooms Liam to run a pizza delivery service that fronts for dope-dealing in and around the projects.
Sweet Sixteen is about the corruption of a vibrant, creative but vulnerable spirit, but it’s not in the business of blame. No agents of the repressive state apparatus show up to take the famous Loachian heat; even Liam’s hapless mother is treated with gentle compassion. It’s not a happy film, but there’s much incidental, quotidian happiness in it. Like Lynne Ramsay’s lovely Ratcatcher, the movie is far from sentimental about children, but it has a humane grasp of the pleasures kids create even under hellish conditions and of their adaptive capacity to craft a life out of the materials available.
The mostly nonprofessional cast of children acts with a relaxed naturalism — especially Compston, who brings a vivacious specificity to Liam. If the boy is a symbol of anything, it’s the double lives that so many in his situation must live: as children, naively insisting on family life even where there is none; and as premature adults, eking out threadbare livings on the social margins. The innocent domesticity Liam shares with Chantelle and his unquenchable love for his mother stand in heartbreaking contrast to his brutal apprenticeship as a drug dealer. Like My Name Is Joe, Sweet Sixteen has an inconclusive ending, but by then Liam is such an unshakable presence in our affections, we can’t help but place our bets on his survival.
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Like Sweet Sixteen, Baltasar Kormákur’s The Sea unfolds in a bleak, far-flung outpost whose natural beauty and instinctive community have been scarred by progress — in this case a remote Icelandic village whose fishing industry, the only source of revenue it has, is threatened by corporations plundering family fishing quotas. This is a central political debate in Iceland, but in the movie the social issue is no more than a peg on which to hang a family drama so vicious it plays like a Bergman parody. The patriarch, Thórdur (Gunnar Eyjólfsson), a man as broody and cold as the menacing clouds and ice-bound mountains that loom over his spacious home, has summoned his wayward offspring for a family dinner during which he plans to deliver some important news. They’re an uninspiring crowd: an ineffectual eldest son who tries to run the ailing business while fending off his rapacious wife; a shrill daughter, a failed filmmaker who now lives in Reykjavík with her weak-kneed Norwegian husband; a willful youngest son who lives in Paris with his pregnant girlfriend, writing songs while pretending to attend business school at his father’s expense; and a nubile cousin, Maria, who has the hots for the youngest son.
The screenplay is by Ólafur Haukur Simonarson from his own stage play, and early on he produces a skeleton in the family closet that is held accountable for the hell that breaks loose before, during and after the meal. The device can’t begin to bear the weight of the mayhem, which never lets up, ranging from temper tantrums to quickies on the side to arson, all pitched in a sustained key of hysteria. Kormákur, who made the well-received 20-something comedy 101 Reykjavík, has technique to burn and a fine visual grasp of his habitat (I can’t think of a recent film that does such evocative things with weather), but he’s a young man in over his head with grown-up material. The Sea aspires to Chekhov and Shakespeare with a dash of bedroom farce, but the movie, which means to be a no-frills baring of the human soul, is undone by its own malignant contempt for every one of its characters, except a pathologically candid grandmother who single-handedly kept my chin from dropping to my ankles. Even Bergman would be scrambling for his Prozac.
SWEET SIXTEEN | Directed by KEN LOACH | Written by PAUL LAVERTY | Produced by REBECCA O’BRIEN | Released by Lion’s Gate Films | At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, Westside Pavilion Cinemas
THE SEA | Directed by BALTASAR KORMÁKUR | Written by KORMÁKUR and ÓLAFUR HAUKUR SIMONARSON | Based on a play by SIMONARSON | Produced by KORMÁKUR and JEAN-FRANÇOIS FONLUPT | Released by Palm Pictures | At Laemmle’s Fairfax, Westside Pavilion Cinemas