Ken Loach once again shows himself expert in using his camera to tackle powerful contemporary dramas with socially conscious themes in this ironically-titled film, a lacerating portrait of an abused, impoverished youth drawn to a life of crime and violence. Thematically “Sweet Sixteen” may break no new ground, and narratively it may follow a well-trod path, but its finely-drawn sense of place (in this case Greenock, a town near Glasgow), Loach’s dynamic direction and a riveting lead performance by newcomer Martin Compston give it real punch.

When we first meet fifteen-year old Liam (Compston), he’s visiting his mother Jean (Michelle Coulter) in prison; and when he refuses to help her thuggish boyfriend Stan (Gary McCormack) pass drugs to her for sale to the other inmates, Stan and Liam’s sleazy granddad Rab (Tommy McKee) beat the kid up and toss him out. He lands with his sister Chantelle (Annmarie Fulton), a struggling single mother, who urges him to redirect his energies. Inspired by a dream of acquiring a place for him and his mother to live when she’s released (an event which will happily coincide with his birthday), the boy–aided by his hot-tempered buddy Pinball (William Ruane)–steals Stan’s stash and sells it piecemeal. His unusual methods of distribution, using a pizza delivery service as a cover, get him noticed by a local crime lord, who takes him on. Though his fortunes seem to be improving, although through illegal means, in a Loach film that can’t be expected to last. Eventually he has to deal with Pinball, whose hair-trigger temper has alienated the boss; and when Jean is released and he presents her with an attractive new apartment (the fruit of his new associations), his hope for an idyllic family existence prove tragically illusory.

There’s nothing in the trajectory of this story that we’ve not seen many times before, but in Loach’s energetic telling it easily grabs the viewer. One reason for this is the Scottish setting, which is made to seem positively exotic, especially by reason of the director’s decision to have the characters speak in their thick local dialect–something which requires the use of subtitles. The second is the remarkable turn he coaxes from Compston, a first-time actor who draws an unforgettable portrait of a excitable, dangerous but strangely sympathetic lost boy. Onscreen virtually every minute, he never loses concentration–or our attention. No one else in the cast can come close to matching him, though Ruane holds his own as the high-string Pinball; still, under Loach’s probing direction all give splendidly naturalistic performances. Loach’s skill is evident in the structure of the film as well. He builds scene after scene with great precision, making each moment count. The thrashing Liam receives from Stan and his grandfather early on, for example, has a power worthy of cinema verité, and when the boy is “tested” by his new boss later, the sequence, which could easily have been hackneyed, is instead made to carry incredible tension. There are occasional flaws, to be sure. Pinball’s fate, for example, is left hanging; perhaps Loach felt that it would undermine our ability to continue caring about Liam if we saw how he dealt with his pal, but leaving the matter unresolved is a bit of a cheat.

For the most part, however, “Sweet Sixteen” is a strong and memorable film, whose apparent artlessness actually conceals a high level of artistry. The material may be familiar, but Loach’s passionate treatment, the palpable sense of place and Compston’s striking debut make it startlingly fresh and deeply moving.