Movies like Sweetie remind me of why I live alone. And in a different state than the rest of my family.
Jane Campion's 1989 debut is a self-consciously quirky movie about extreme family dysfunctions. Kay (Karen Colston) is a sourpuss who believes in fate more than she does engaging in actual social interactions. An outcast at her workplace, she sets her sights on a coworker's fiancé, Louis (Tom Lycos), after he personifies a fortune teller's prophecy about the love of Kay's life. Louis accepts Kay's advances, and thirteen months later (lots of superstitious imagery here), they are still together--though with problems. Louis plants a sapling in honor of their love, and Kay tears it out of the ground in the middle of the night, afraid it will die and turn into a bad omen. Self-fulfilling prophecy, as it turns out. This is also when Kay starts sleeping in a different bed.
The couple try a few things to try to get their equilibrium back, and it's when they return from one such excursion that they discover Kay's sister, Sweetie (Geneviève Lemon), has broken into their house and moved herself in. Sweetie is apparently a little mentally unbalanced and has possibly gone off her meds. Sweetie instantly takes over the place, destroying Kay's room with her boyfriend Bob (Michael Lake), who she says is a producer who is helping her with her music career, but he appears to be the only person on the planet more fried than her. Kay's childhood frustrations come rushing back, particularly when Louis chastises her for being so hard on her sister. It seems that Kay is the only person in the world that can see how obnoxious Sweetie is.
Well, Kay and the person viewing the movie. I suppose it's a testament to Lemon's performance how much I wanted to reach through the screen and throttle her. Sweetie barrels her way through everything, refusing to listen to anyone, and when she doesn't get her way, she throws a childish tantrum. The main reason why she has gotten away with such behavior for so long is that her father (Jon Darling) indulged her every whim and filled her head with delusions of her own talent. Oddly enough, the high-maintenance Sweetie requires has become the bonding force in the family. When she's around, the others can ignore their own problems. Suddenly the relationship woes between Louis and Kay take a backseat; however, back home, now that Sweetie is gone, the girls' mother (Dorothy Barry) has left their father to try to gather her head. This sends daddy over to Kay's place, where he camps out and continues to let Sweetie get away with murder. Campion gives us some hints to darker overtones in the father/daughter relationship, but only hints. Given Sweetie's dominance, it's most likely less about the father being perverted than it is about Sweetie controlling the situation even further.
Eventually, Kay, Louis, and the old man go in search of his wife, leaving Sweetie behind. The reconciliation is one of the few calm spots in the film, the family finally able to catch its breath. Only, they are all going to have an enraged Sweetie to deal with when they get home, as well as the interpersonal problems they have been avoiding.
Sweetie was a critical success when it first came out, but like a lot of early '90s indie movies, it hasn't aged as well as it could have. Campion is not yet the self-assured director that would make The Piano only a couple of years later. She pushes the odd factor a little hard in Sweetie, composing her frames at askew (though intriguing and often lovely) angles and layering on choral world beat, doo-wop music that seems too grandiose for the small story being told. Every character is so strange, it starts to feel forced, and though Lemon really gives the performance her all, it's kind of hard to swallow that so many people would turn a blind eye to Sweetie's petulance.
It's the more relaxed moments--the mini vacation away from Sweetie, the denouement, etc.--that work the best in the picture. While they exist to balance out the more outrageous struggle with Sweetie's personality, the values are too starkly contrasted. By the time the respite comes, it's just as much for the audience's benefit as it is for the other characters. I found that instead of wanting to get back into the story and see how the family would finally deal with their wild child, I really would have rather they stayed out in the middle of nowhere and give us all a break.
Still, there is power in Campion's finale, and her film isn't without purpose. As I noted, the camerawork is often quite special. Director of photography Sally Bongers fetishizes everyday objects with a true photographer's eye. It's just that from a writing standpoint, Sweetie could have maybe benefited from the deft hand of a more experienced filmmaker.
The Criterion Collection's DVD of Sweetie was mastered in high definition at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, supervised by Sally Bongers. The picture is gorgeous. The vivid colors of Campion's eccentric little world pop off the screen.
A 5.1 surround mix with optional English subtitles.
Sweetie has a pile of bonus features, and Criterion's selection of what to put on here is incredible. It really pushes this disc up in my estimation.
There are two that focus specifically on the movie. The first is an excellent commentary round-table with Jane Campion, Sally Bongers, and co-writer Gerard Lee. The three speakers have a personal history together and thus can engage each other in conversation. They talk about the various stages of filming, tell anecdotes from the set, and also discuss reactions to how they made the film. They are candid about the motivations for their efforts on what is the fledgling project for all of them, and the track is very illuminating. Lee is particularly forthcoming. He is dissatisfied with just about everything in the finished product.
The second feature is "Making Sweetie," a contemporary tandem interview with actresses Geneviéve Lemon and Karen Colston. Again, this is also very conversational, and the women tell totally different stories than the three in the commentary. There is also super 8 footage that was shot on the set.
The rest of the bonus features give us a glimpse into Campion's pre-Sweetie career and film school. We get her three experimental short films--An Exercise in Discipline: Peel, Passionless Moments, and A Girl's Own Story. This is accompanied by Jane Campion: The Film School Years, a twenty-minute interview by critic and teacher Peter Thompson shot in 1989. It is about how the shorts were made.
There is also a photo gallery from the set of Sweetie and the original theatrical trailer. The interior booklet features photos, as well, and a new essay by Dana Polan, a Campion scholar.
Even with its overdone weirdness and the intended annoyance of the title character, Sweetie achieves heartfelt interpersonal moments and has an excellent shooting style. On its own, it's probably only worth a rental, but as a DVD package, Criterion has more than made up for the film's flaws with an amazing disc that's packed with extras. When it's all put together, Sweetie - Criterion Collection is a Recommended disc.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.