One of those lurid exploitation flicks with a hint of something serious lurking behind sexy scenarios and topless shots, Sixteen tells the slight story of two country-bumpkin teens who become separated from their parents while visiting a traveling carnival, then fall into confusing relationships with older lovers. In some ways, the fact that both a brother and sister find romance (or at least intimacy) elevates this material above the usual titillating fare; a more grotesque version of the same story would have involved two nubile girls landing in bed with strangers. What’s more, the scenes that open the picture, establishing the story’s economic backdrop and such, dramatize culture-clash themes because the clan at the center of the narrative is virtually stuck in another century, as evidenced by their use of a horse-drawn carriage. Unfortunately, director Lawrence Dobkin and his collaborators strike discordant notes as early as the picture’s first act. Watching the lengthy scene of adolescent beauty Naomi (Simone Griffeth) skinny-dipping, one gets the impression the filmmakers considered it more important for viewers to know the contours of the character’s body than to know the contours of her soul.
In any event, Pa (Ford Rainey) and Ma (Mercedes McCambridge) take their kids to a carnival as a means of celebrating after selling a valuable piece of land. Naomi gets lost, happening upon a swaggering daredevil who performs a “Wall of Death” routine with a motorcycle. Her brother, J.C. (Buddy Foster), wanders into a tent featuring strippers. In both subplots, mature characters exploit the country kids’ naïveté. The daredevil seduces Naomi, screwing her while other carny folk watch the encounter. Over at the stripper tent, an aging exotic dancer hears about the income from the land sale, so she lures J.J. into her mobile home. As this hanky-panky happens, Pa and Ma have no clue about their kids’ whereabouts, so they reluctantly head home, believing J.J. will track down his sister and bring her home. Watching Sixteen devolve is a bummer, not because it held the promise of being a thoughtful sociocultural investigation, but because the carnival scenes have an unsettling quality that should have led somewhere more interesting. Similarly, Sixteen features some creepy intimations of incest and religiosity; more material along those lines would have helped make the picture distinctive.