Sweet Sixteen

Sweet Sixteen

Dir: Ken Loach


Sweet Sixteen conforms to the  BRITISH CONTEMPORARY SOCIAL REALISM  Genre. Social Realism in films is representative of real life, with all its difficulties. The stories and people portrayed are everyday characters, usually from working class backgrounds. Typically, films within the social realist canon are gritty, urban dramas about the struggle to survive the daily grind.

 The Social Realism Genre was born in the 1960s in an era called British New Wave. Amongst the many films that emerged during the new wave of social realism, there are dozens of stunning examples that continue being championed to this day. Look Back in Anger, A Taste Of Honey, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, This Sporting Life, Billy Liar, Cathy Come Home, Up The Junction and Room At The Top,

Social Realism is often regarded as  Britain’s richest gift to world cinema. It grew out of the state sponsored Documentary movement of the 1930s and 1940s, and one of the distinctive generic conventions is a documentary style of filming, including:

Lighting – attempts to reproduce naturalistic lighting
Settings – often on location in urban housing estates.
Hand held camera – making the audience feel that they are part of the action
Unknown actors – this helps the audience focus on the characters rather than be influenced by a famous actor’s stereotype.

The film-maker has a specific argument or message to deliver about the social world and employs realist conventions to express this message or argument

Low budget – they are rarely funded by the ‘studio’s system as they are not greater money-makers, so they are often funded independently or through organisations such as the Film Councils, National Lottery, Channel 4 etc.

Under represented groups in society become represented

The texts often SUBVERT the traditional heroic idea of Britishness depicted in war films, Bond films etc.

In NARRATIVE terms the story is always told in a linear way, with events unfolding around the central characters rather than with plots and sub plots and several narrative strands as in soaps Etc

Sweet Sixteen conforms to these conventions in the following way:

Lighting – scenes such as in the beginning in the pub, in the prison, in Chantelle’s flat, in the Pizza take-away etc are lit to make them look as naturalistic as possible. The scene in the pub shows light streaming through the windows into the smoky atmosphere.

The film is shot on location in Greenock on the outskirts of Glasgow which is where the film is set – this helps the audience identify with the characters and adds a strong sense of realism.

The use of unknown actors especially Martin Compston as Liam with their own accents also helps to achieve this naturalism. Films usually require the viewer to suspend their disbelief, but in this case it is unnecessary; there is no disbelief.

The film’s message is subtle, Ken Loach’s left wing politics are well known but this is not an overtly political film, more a film about the disintegration of a section of society that in previous generations would have their lives revolve around industry, especially ship-building. The underlying message is that Liam’s  generation  has no hope or aspiration except to work in a call centre. There is also the issue of them being brought up with foster parents and children’s homes because they came from a dysfunctional family.  These are signs of the ‘broken society’ that Loach believes is the consequence of years of Thatcherism. The film is also a Coming of Age Text – showing the events surrounding a transition between childhood and adulthood. Also and Underclass film – the film portrays events in a section of society that has ‘fallen through the net’ in terms of jobs, benefits etc.

In this kind of film there is an emphasis on masculine world of dissent (e.g. drug taking, criminality reflects a rejection of mainstream society and values)However, despite the celebration of dissent, the entrepreneurial spirit (from drug dealing and Criminality) comes through

 Ken Loach is famous for social realist films. Other notable films include Kes, Raining Stones and My Name is Joe and The Wind that The Wind That Shakes the Barley.The screenwriter Paul Laverty also works extensively within this modern social realist framework and has worked with Ken Loach on a number of films.

The  films funding is typical of low budget, independently  produced film. The film was more of a critical success rather than a commercial one. Sweet Sixteen is a co-production with Road Movies in Germany and Tornasol and Alta in Spain, Scottish Screen has invested in it and the BBC has the British TV and Theatrical rights.

The film has been pre-sold to Diaphana in France; BIM in Italy; Cinéart in Belgium and Holland; and the Glasgow Film Fund have given a grant for working in the region. Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen also gave funding. Issues regarding The UK Film Council and funding could be considered here as well as what makes a film British.

 The film was initially shown in October 2002 on 66 screens, mainly in Scotland, the widest exhibition was in France. Limited US release. Won critical acclaim and many independent film prizes including best British Independent Film. Distributed by A Film Distribution and Icon.


Loach employs a ‘linear narrative’ social realist cinema adhere to conventional narrative structures to make the story more realistic. The film could be analysed using Todorov’s theory of narrative organisation:

 A state of equilibrium is defined

This is Liam and Pinball, dropouts from school, selling dodgy fags in the pub, letting little kids have a look through their telescope for 25p a go. Liam lives with his Grandad.

Disruption to the equilibrium by some action or crisis.

Liam falls out with his Grandad and mum’s boyfriend because he refuses to hand over the drugs to his mum in prison. He gets thrown out of home and goes to live with his sister.

The Character(s) recognition that there has been a disruption, setting goals to resolve problem

Liam notices that Stan hides his drugs in the dog pen, he resolves to steal the drugs, sell them, and make enough money to buy a caravan for his mum to live in when she gets out of prison.

The Character(s) attempt to repair the disruption, obstacles need to be overcome to restore order.

Liam finds resistance from other drug dealers, he starts distributing the drugs via pizza delivery, he is then recruited by Tony a bigger dealer and supplier to set up his own network. The caravan is firebombed, Liam thinks by Stan, but actually by Pinball. Tony gives him an ultimatum to deal with Pinball if he does he will give Liam a flat for his mum.

A crisis is reached.

There is a party in the flat for mum, in the morning Liam finds that she has gone back to Stan, Liam fights with Michelle then stabs Stan.

Reinstatment to the equilibrium. Situation is resolved, a conclusion is announced.

The new equilibrium is that Liam is in deep trouble, we don’t know the actual conclusion but we know it must be bad!


Representation of the central character Liam. He is represented as a typical ‘scally’ with Burberry baseball cap and track suit bottoms. His selling ‘knock off’ fags makes him typical of post-Thatcherite entrepreneurial spirit. He has a heart – he wants to provide a better life for his mother when she comes out of prison.

 His frequent fights and  battles with his violent step-father represent him as someone who has frequently had to resort to violence to get by.  His becoming involved in selling drugs, even though he is not a user himself, show him as someone prepared to do anything to reach his aim of restoring the kind of family relationship that has been clearly lacking in his life. Someother characters are one dimensional – a sort of cinematic shorthand – Grandad? – Suzanne? Consider nature of stereotypes within the film? To what extent are these realistic or merely expected?

Representation of gender. All the leading characters are male, supporting ccharacters are female.  Re-inforcing patriarchal stereotypes? The men are seen as having to pursue increasingly violent and criminal means to get their goals. The women are a steadying factor, apart from mum who is a classic victim of abuse and neglect. Masculinity in crisis?

 There is a strong representation of contemporary Britain in post-industrial decline. Shot on location in Scotland. Attempts to reflect ‘realism’ of the council estate and run down industrial sites. Juxtaposes with panoramic beauty of heritage and tourist Scotland.

Representation of Youth? (Consider against texts such as Kidulthood).
Representation of class (underclass)
Star Image – No big name stars. There were some character actors recognisable from other dramas. The younger actors were novices recruited from local schools.

Importance of stars for the success of a film can be considered here as well as the nature of stardom. Liam, played by Martin Compston has subsequently gone on to star in Monarch of the Glen and stars alongside Bob Hoskins in the upcoming film, Doomsday

Audience – Target Audience

Is the film too regional? Using local actors, improvising dialogue and allowing heavy use of dialect meant that the open sequences of the film had to be subtitled. Can the film appeal to a non-Scottish audience?

Is there an audience for modern social realism? Consider audience viewing figures/cinema numbers etc? Who does this appeal to?

Audience Positioning

How does the film allow us to side with and identify with Liam? What techniques does Loach use in order to ensure this? Can the text be read differently? (Consider notions of preferred readings and audience reception here)

The camera is always in a fixed position, at eye level with a long lens. It’s as if you are in the doorway watching. That is the psychology of Ken Loach’s films – you feel this connection to the subject almost too closely. Sometimes if it ispainful and emotional you may not want to be in the room. That is what it is like when you watch in the cinema. You are a witness, not passive, but you can’t change events.

Audience reception

The film sparked a censorship debate in the UK regarding the amount of bad language used. Controversy surrounded the multiple use of the F-word and the presence of even more graphic language resulted in an 18 certificate. (Compare with certification for one of Loach’s previous films, My Name is Joe.)

It was argued, however, that this would prevent the people who could most closely identify with the characters in the film from going to see it, and that such language was much more commonly used, and therefore less offensive, in the north of the UK, where the film was set.

The London based censors, however, stuck to their guns, although the local authority who cover the area where the film was shot, Inverclyde, utilized their cinema licensing powers to overrule this, and awarded the film a 15-certificate for screenings in their area.

Critically the film was well received and won a prize for Best Independent British Film. Financially the film was not as successful. (Consider what makes a successful film?)

Audience Debates

Debates on the Today Program and Radio 4 ensured air-time, publicity and discussion.

Ken Loach’s comments about the policy of censorship also added to controversy. Loach accused the censors and the BBC (who were critical of the use of violence and bad language) of being in “Ivory Towers” and watching from the “Middle class gallery” This raises questions about the nature of censorship and violence. The role of the BBFC and other institutions can also be considered here. More information onclassification and censorship can be found on the BBFC website, www.bbfc.co.uk and in Teaching Film Censorship and Controversy (Mark Readman, BFI Education,


The film also caused some controversy as the actors were not legally able to attend the premiere of the film they had starred in. Loach urged his audiences to go and see the film regardless of legal constraints, declaring the BBFC was useless.


One Response to Sweet Sixteen

  1. Irene Brock says:

    Who wrote the article about Sweet Sixteen (Ken Loach)?
    I can’t see it anywhere on the web page and i need to know it in order to refer to it in my paper.
    Can you help me?

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