The third annual Human Rights Watch Festival opens with this latest work from Ken Loach, one of the world’s most political filmmakers. The irony is that Sweet Sixteen is one of his least overtly political films, as it rolls together the gangster film, the kitchen-sink melodrama, and the teen coming-of-age flick into a kind of Scarface–meets–Billy Elliot with social trappings.
Liam (Martin Compston), a Glasgow dropout, wants to buy a caravan by the river Clyde for his beloved mother before she’s released from prison, which will be the day before his 16th birthday. Selling stolen fags with his pal Pinball (William Ruane) won’t raise enough money, so Liam turns to dealing heroin, starting with a stash he lifts from Stan, mum’s creepy boyfriend, and working his way up to the "big boys," the local kingpins who recognize and encourage his entrepreneurial talents. But the unapologetically socialist Loach doesn’t seem to be criticizing this distorted variation of capitalism as much as he seems to be celebrating it. The deleterious effects of Liam’s product appear less important than his skill and success at reaching his goal, and neither the genre clichés along the way nor the late turn toward an Oedipal crisis diminishes that exuberance. (106 minutes)