Criterion // 1989 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 27th, 2011
The story of a family's profoundly rotten roots.
"You know, she doesn't really have any experience in the entertainment industry."
Kay (Karen Colston, The Piano) is a shy, quiet and exceptionally superstitious young woman. She has never had many friends and has never been particularly well-liked. When Kay sees what she believes to be a spiritual sign of sorts, she becomes convinced that she is destined to be in a relationship with a young man named Louis (Tom Lycos). After some initial hesitation, Louis goes along with the idea and dutifully takes his place as Kay's new boyfriend.
After a year or so, things seem to be going reasonably well. There are some intimacy issues which need to be worked out and a few relationship hurdles to overcome, but it actually seems as if these two have a decent shot at happiness. Then Kay's sister Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon, Holy Smoke) drops by for a visit.
Sweetie is a wild, reckless force of nature; a selfish and spoiled brat who has manipulated everyone in her life since early childhood. Her presence causes one problem after another, and soon Kay's father (Jon Darling, A Country Practice) and mother (Dorothy Barry) are dragged into the fray. Will Kay and Louis' relationship survive the turmoil, or will Sweetie's destructive nature tear it to pieces?
One of the most surprising things I noticed while watching Jane Campion's debut feature Sweetie was how remarkably assured the direction was. In most first films (even some genuinely excellent ones), it feels as if the director is attempting to find a cinematic voice which will be fine-tuned later on. It seems that Campion was on her A-game from the beginning, as Sweetie is a film every bit as cinematically striking, distinctive and rewarding as the best of her later work.
One of Campion's admirable traits is her willingness to tackle material that runs the risk of seeming terribly silly if mishandled (think of what an awful film The Piano could have been without her direction, for instance). This has backfired on at least one occasion (I'm thinking of the spectacularly awful Holy Smoke -- a terrible film, but one unmistakably made by an ambitious director), but Sweetie pulls off a tricky balancing act with aplomb.
It takes a while to get a handle on the film's tone, which seems heavily dosed in near-cartoonish satire but has an undercurrent of devastating realism and surreal horror slipped underneath. The film consistently maintains an element of gentle, loopy humor and even becomes laugh-out-loud hilarious from time to time, but there's also such a potent sense of dread as you begin to see what might become of these characters. The third-act scene in which Sweetie is in the family tree house is a mini-masterpiece of tone, veering alarmingly between giddy humor, depraved sadness and almost unbearable tension. Afterwards you want to applaud Campion for managing to spin all of those plates without breaking any of them.
The film works well enough as a piece of entertainment, but in-between the film's many eccentricities you begin to see its haunting core. Sweetie is a masterful dissection of a family; offering its most powerful statements in the form of innuendo and off-screen suggestion. Through the actions of what the family is going through now, we begin to understand what must have happened in the past. It would have been easy to resort to increasingly dramatic flashbacks as the film progressed, but Campion ingeniously allows us to create those moments in our own minds.
Given that all of the actors had little or no experience at the time, you would think that the performances might be the one lacking element of the film. Surprisingly, that isn't the case. Everyone involved manages to deliver precisely what their respective character needs. I suppose it's possible some of Colston's muted turn as Kay is rooted in being uncomfortable in front of the camera, but it suits the character tremendously well. Lemon's audacious performance is easily the most memorable piece of acting in the film; it's doubtful that a more well-known actress would have been willing to subject herself to such a demanding, ugly role. Lemon blusters through one tough scene after another with unflinching conviction; it should have been a star-making role.
Despite the film's low budget, I'm pleased to report that Sweetie has received a very attractive 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. Campion has a tremendous knack for conjuring up a steady stream of compelling angles and images in her films, and this one is no exception. It's a treat to look at Sweetie (ugly as some of those images get at times), as the transfer offers splendid detail, sharp colors and impressive depth. There were reports of color bleeding on the previous DVD release (unseen by me), but there's none of that to be found on this transfer. Audio is also quite strong, as this understated track offers clean dialogue and a musical score which comes through with clarity. Interestingly, Campion more or less limits herself to two types of music: choral gospel tunes and David Lynch-esque brooding sound design (Campion cites Lynch as one of her biggest influences in her commentary track).
Speaking of which, the extras here are of exceptional quality. The commentary track featuring Campion, cinematographer Sally Bongers and co-writer Gerard Lee is an essential listening, offering some valuable thoughts from Campion on her first film and a collection of genuinely hilarious anecdotes (there's a terrific bit in which Lee tells a story about the time Campion laughed uncontrollably in the theatre during the most dramatic scenes in Sophie's Choice). You also get three very impressive short films from the beginning of Campion's career ("An Exercise in Discipline: Peel," "Passionless Moments" and "A Girl's Own Story"), an archival interview with Campion from 1989 (20 minutes) and a featurette entitled "The Making of Sweetie" (23 minutes). That last item basically just an extended interview with Colston and Lemon. Finally, there's a production gallery, a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Dana Polon.
Sweetie is one of the more remarkable directorial debuts I've seen; a nuanced, thought-provoking and surprisingly entertaining film which quickly proves impossible to look away from. The strong supplemental package and above-average transfer make this one easy to recommend.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Short Films