by Andrew Wright

Sweet Sixteen

dir. Loach

Opens Fri June 12

Various Theaters

For over four decades and some 30-odd films, Ken Loach has made it his mission to direct without blinders. Whether it's the plight of Barcelona's anti-fascist brigades (Land and Freedom), or an ex-boozer's second-chance romance (My Name Is Joe), Loach fashions his viewpoints with empathic honesty and an admirable lack of rose coloring. His sociopolitical zeal has occasionally veered over into uncomfortable lecture territory, but when he connects with his material, the result is a natural fusion between social consciousness and ring-true melodrama that's tough to shake.

Sweet Sixteen, the director's latest, finds him firmly in the zone. Set in his native Glasgow (and mercifully subtitled for those who don't speak brogue), the film chronicles the rapid rise and fall of an enterprising lad's immersion into small-town thug life. When the fiercely family-conscious hustler Liam (newcomer Martin Compston) catches wind of an easy score, it leads to a swift downward spiral of drugs, hoods, and wincingly violent retributions.

This is all fairly rote stuff, on first glance, and the script by Loach's frequent collaborator Paul Laverty occasionally finds itself hamstrung by the conventions of the gangsta genre (deceptively cultured mob bosses, hair-trigger psycho buddy, etc). What elevates the material past sub-Scorsese posing or grotty Larry Clark voyeurism and into honest, unforced tragedy is the way the downbeats between the cliches are handled.

Under Loach's deft hand, it all feels indisputably real, right down to the way a helplessly loving son's mix tape for his convict mom sounds like it was recorded on the cruddiest of boom boxes. It's an undeniable downer, but it's hellaciously well acted, brimming with compassion, and relevant in a way that doesn't chafe.