Sweet Thing is one of the most gorgeous films in recent memory, but it fails to develop beyond its pretty packaging.
Titled in homage to the Van Morrison song of the same name, Sweet Thing exemplifies a similar sense of vague wonder at life’s beauty and tumult. “And I will be satisfied / Not to read between the lines” the song goes, and one imagines that director Alexandre Rockwell wants his latest film approached on similar terms, this fairly rote tale of child abuse and lost innocence not inviting much beyond a pretty miserbalist, face value reading.
At this juncture, Rockwell is likely most associated with the work he did in the ‘90s, specifically the Steve Buscemi-starring, Jim Jarmusch-paralleling In the Soup (alternatively, his segment in Four Rooms), an early Sundance success that enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity thanks to a Factory 25 restoration in 2017. In the Soup is very of its time, a faux self-deprecating narrative about a dweeby, aspiring screenwriter (Steve Buscemi, full geek mode) who falls in with a charismatic criminal/con man (Seymour Cassel, tapped into some powerful energy) while fostering an unrequited crush for his neighbor. Buscemi’s screenwriter character from that film is credited as the mind behind Sweet Thing, with an early title card asserting this as “An Adolpho Rollo Picture” (his name also appears in the credits with various sound department roles). A cute throwaway probably, but also amusingly symbolic of this film’s self-importance and overreliance on faux-profound archetypal narrative — very much in keeping with Buscemi and Rockwell’s conception of that character circa 1992.
The initial gesture towards metafiction is mostly that, and Sweet Thing’s plot proceeds onward without much further distraction; the problem is, there isn’t really any intrigue or originality to spare either. Rockwell has cast his children (Lana and Nico, both good) and wife (Karyn Parsons) in the lead roles here, alongside Will Patton (who, of course, was in In the Soup, the continuity implications awfully curious); the quartet playing a family fractured by alcoholism and abuse, the children, Billie and Nico, trying to hold things together with what little agency they have. Patton and Parsons (unfortunately credited as Adam and Eve, respectively) represent two different variations on the alcoholic, abusive parent role; the former sweet and fun-loving when sober, but unreasonable and physically violent when drunk, while the latter is much more functional, but similarly dependent and also ensnared in an abusive relationship with a meathead pedophile. The children slide between these two households, with the narrative drifting from grim to bleak as they end up trapped on an extended vacation with their enabler mother and this irritable sex criminal, though totally predictably so, Rockwell’s script wholly reliant on canonical media abuse narratives that render Sweet Thing an endurance test more than anything else. This is all filtered through a whimsical tone, the film skewing about as close to magical realism as you can without actually becoming that, ultimately centering on how these extreme experiences inspire pluck and resilience in these children, often feeling more fetishistic than empathetic (hard not to think of the work of Benh Zeitlin while watching this, a scene where Billie reads Peter Pan to Nico really raising flags).
It’s a shame, as Sweet Thing features some of the loveliest 16mm cinematography in recent memory, courtesy of Lasse Ulvedal Tolbøll, who provides a clean handheld sensibility; organic in movement, but never aggressively so. Mostly shot on a nice, grainy black and white stock (barring a couple instances of color, including a delirious montage of nasty mixed drinks getting blended up, one of the film’s few funny moments), Tolbøll and Rockwell have realized some truly stunning imagery, clearly having considered their visual sensibility and shooting style with a thoroughness rare in contemporary film. Sweet Thing is clearly designed to feel timeless, which it accomplishes impressively on a purely visual level, working in the influence of silent film (convincing use of iris transitions) and Euro arthouse touchstones like 400 Blows and Landscape in The Mist, while still feeling appropriately contemporary. Yet on a narrative level, “timeless” has been confused for cliche and trope, and Sweet Thing is never able to access the emotional frequency that those aforementioned films resonate on. For Rockwell, it’s as if this heavy subject matter was chosen because it feels like what an important movie would tackle, not because there is any immediate emotional stake in telling it.
Originally published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 4.