Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
It’s supposed to be a touching family reunion: Fifteen-year-old Liam, who adores his mother, Jean, goes to visit her with his grandfather and his mother’s boyfriend, Stan. Liam doesn’t like Stan, though, and he refuses to follow the script for the meeting. Finally, Stan can’t abide Liam’s defiance any longer. “Kiss your fucking mother,” he barks.
This could be just another day in Ken Loach’s Britain, where if it weren’t for dysfunction, things wouldn’t function at all. Yet despite the familiarity of its defeated-working-class milieu, the new Sweet Sixteen is fresh, smart, funny, andby the wayhorrific. It’s the best Loach film to get a U.S. release since 1998’s My Name Is Joe, the director’s previous tale of an attempt at gallantry in the Scottish drug-dealing underworld.
In fact, Stan (former Exploited bassist Gary McCormack) is a drug dealer. Stan’s partner in crime is Liam’s thuggish grandfather Rab (Tommy McKee), and Jean (Michelle Coulter) is in prison after taking the rap for him. The reason that Liam (Martin Compston) won’t kiss his mother is that he’s supposed to pass drugs to her while he does. Liam doesn’t want Jean to get in any more trouble. She’s set to be released the day before Liam turns 16, and what the skinny, intense boy wants for his birthday is a different sort of family reunion: Liam; his sister, Chantelle (Annmarie Fulton); her infant son, Calum; and Jean all living togetherwithout Stan.
Liam and his bouncing-off-the-walls friend Pinball (William Ruane) earn money selling black-market cigarettes in pubs and on the street in Greenock, a depressed former shipbuilding center west of Glasgow. It’s not that different from dealing heroin, if less risky. Liam believes he can handle some more danger, though, especially if it will enable him to make enough money to buy a place for the family to live after Jean is released. His first supply of smack has an additional advantage: It’s stolen from Stan, so Liam is profiting from his nemesis’s loss.
Stan never figures out who stole his stash, even though Liam isn’t especially subtle in plundering the house where he used to live. (He also snags photos of himself with his mom, as well as his granddad’s dentures.) The local drug kingpin, however, is a little more observant: Tony (Martin McCardie) quickly brings Liam under his control, in the process alienating the anarchic Pinball from his more disciplined friend. Working for Tony does provide Liam with the means to acquire a home for his fractured family, but Chantelle, who distrusts her mother, doesn’t share Liam’s domestic fantasy. And there’s no guarantee that Jean will, either. The result is a tragic denouement that might seem forced if every other aspect of the film weren’t so carefully constructed.
As Liam, Compston gives a fierce, indelible performance. The film was shot in chronological order so that the 17-year-old, who had never acted before, could grow much as his character does. The director dispensed the script in small sections, and he didn’t necessarily tell every actor what might happen in a scene. With all the surprises, Compston has said, “I didn’t even need to act half the time.” Loach is not a flashy director, enamored of fancy camera movements or intrusive editing. But then it wouldn’t do to put such a strong authorial stamp on a process that’s so collaborative.
Many of Loach’s films observe working-class Britons (or their Latino equivalents) battling authority. But Sweet Sixteenwhich, like My Name Is Joe and Bread and Roses, was scripted by Paul Lavertytranspires in a place where the only social leaders of note are drug dealers. No priests or social workers intervene in Liam’s life, and the only cop who has a significant role is merely the subject of a practical joke. Compston is not remarkable simply because he carries the moviehe also ideally embodies the Loachian Everyman, struggling in a world where even the most rudimentary social structures must be reinvented from scratch.
Sweet Sixteen is hardly a glib film, but it is focused by a traditional narrative arc. Love & Diane is messier, although it explores similar themes. Jennifer Dworkin’s penetrating documentary is named for two of its three central characters: 42-year-old Diane Hazzard is a former crack addict who allowed her six children to spend most of their lives in foster homes and institutions. When the two-and-half-hour movie begins, Love Hinson is 18, the second-oldest of Diane’s surviving kids. Love has just given birth to a son, Donyaeh, who becomes the saga’s third principal when he’s claimed by New York City social workers. Bedeviled by bouts of depression and rage, Love fights to get Donyaeh back, thus breaking the cycle of abandonment. But that cycle is longstanding: Diane reveals that she saw her own mother only three timesthe last in a casket.
Likely to be a difficult film for anybody except the staunchest of ideologues, Love & Diane doesn’t demonize or vindicate its title characters. Although Diane and Love accomplish some notable things during the roughly two-year period that the film observes them, neither has a life-altering epiphany. Contrary to welfare-queen mythology, this is not because they’re lazy hustlers. Diane says she comes “from a long line of alcoholics,” and both have been treated for depression. Yet they don’t glory in their woes as much as some middle-class neurotics do. In fact, Love is reluctant to recount yet again the childhood traumas she believes she’s discussed enough.
Dworkin’s film, her first, again demonstrates the value of patience to a documentarian. Her subjects clearly got used to her presence, and they conversed with remarkable frankness while the camera rolled. (Some of the footage is actually from video cameras Dworkin gave to some of the family members.) Indeed, it turns out that Love and Diane have matching guilty consciences: When she was 8, Love told her teacher that her mother smoked crack, a disclosure that led to the family’s dissolution. A decade later, Diane informed social workers about Love’s tantrums, which resulted in Donyaeh’s removal from his mother. With brief onscreen texts updating the story and poetic black-and-white interludes attempting to convey the central characters’s memories, Love & Diane is not a strictly cinéma vérité undertaking. But the film does make its way toward a shifting, frustrating, and powerful kind of truth. CP