Ken Loach believes the truth will set you free. A man whose independence, vigor and passion for naturalism have inspired several generations of British filmmakers, he's been a socially conscious director for nearly 40 years. Loach's best films -- "Kes," "Raining Stones," "Land and Freedom" -- play like he's somehow convinced reality itself to pitch in and make his points for him.
Loach's latest, "Sweet Sixteen," won the best screenplay prize at Cannes last year, as well as the award for the best British independent film. It's one of the most emotional and compelling the filmmaker has ever made. Confident, uncompromising and blisteringly realistic, "Sweet Sixteen" is a gritty and immediate film yet it goes right to the emotions. The title may be intentionally ironic -- there's little unadulterated sweetness in this snapshot of Scottish urban life -- but the volatile, unforgiving nature of the story rings true and moves us more than we might think possible.
Initially, the credit for this goes to screenwriter Paul Laverty, who's collaborated with Loach before, most notably on another Cannes prize-winner, 1998's "My Name Is Joe." Though these films are connected only spiritually, their writer and director consider them to be two parts of a projected Glasgow-area trilogy, a look at life among the city's struggling classes.
Because the setting is Glasgow and because authenticity is prized, "Sweet Sixteen" takes the unusual and very welcome step of using subtitles to make what's being said in heavily accented English -- which even people in London have trouble understanding -- clear to viewers.
Yet, paradoxically, one of the strengths of "Sixteen" is that, despite the trappings of foreignness, this story of the conflict between decency and expediency, of the limited choices and chances available to people who need them the most if they are to break the cycle of poverty and crime, is completely relevant to any American city you can name.
Another key to the film's success is Martin Compston, the actor who plays young Liam. Loach is especially adept at working with non-professionals like Compston and draws a thrilling performance out of his star, who portrays a charismatic but frustrated young man determined to make a better life for his mother.
Liam and his best friend, Pinball (William Ruane), collectively mocked as "Simon and Garfunkel," live lives of small-time juvenile criminality, selling stolen cigarettes for a meager profit. Liam is clearly ambitious and capable, but he's also headstrong with more nerve than sense, a dangerous combination in the profane, unforgiving world he lives in.
It's characteristic of this world that Jean (Michelle Coulter), the mother whose future Liam cares so much about, is currently behind bars, having taken the rap for her drug-dealing boyfriend, Stan (Gary McCormack), and her own low-life father (Tommy McKee). Though Liam's sister Chantelle (Annmarie Fulton) has broken off with Jean because she wants a new start for herself and her young son, Liam is determined to give his mother that same start. With the impetuousness of youth, he wants to set it all up by the time his mother gets released, the day before his 16th birthday.
The unflinching twist to "Sweet Sixteen's" plot is that in this culture the only thing Liam can think to do, the only viable option that he sees to improve his status in life, is to deal drugs. "An opportunity like this for someone like you comes only once," an established criminal tells him, and the drama in that is this film's core.
Liam is so real, so naked in his dreams and frustrations, that this scenario doesn't play out as schematic as it may sound. The more Liam succeeds, the more our emotions are divided. Because we care for him and his aims, we desperately want him to do well, but it is difficult to share in his happiness because we fear he is getting in over his head more than he knows in a world that is more complex and pitiless than even he understands.
Played with impeccable honesty and a real feeling for the truth of its characters and their situation, "Sweet Sixteen" brings to mind "The Asphalt Jungle's" famous dictum that crime is no more than a left-handed form of human endeavor. For not the first time, it is the business of Loach to involve us in a world where, tragically, that hand is the only one offered.
MPAA rating: R for pervasive strong language, drug content and some violence
Times guidelines: Tough, adult subject matter and teen sexuality
Martin Compston ... Liam
William Ruane ... Pinball
Annmarie Fulton ... Chantelle
Michelle Abercromby ... Suzanne
Michelle Coulter ... Jean
A Lions Gate Films release. Director Ken Loach. Producer Rebecca O'Brien. Screenplay by Paul Laverty. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. Editor Jonathan Morris. Costume designer Carole K. Millar. Music George Fenton. Production designer Martin Johnson. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
In selected theaters.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun