Before Jane Campion came to international acclaim with The Piano she made some interesting more modest pictures, the first of which was 1989's Sweetie. Her feature film debut follows two sisters, both in their early to mid twenties. Kay (Karen Colston) is thin and awkward and rather impulsive while Dawn, who everyone calls Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon), is heavier set and prone to strange behavior thanks to an unnamed condition of some sort. Their parents, Flo (Dorothy Barry) and Gordon (Jon Darling), don't do much about this, they see Sweetie's behavior as nothing to worry about and only have eyes for their baby girl, unable to either see or accept the reality of her situation. They are, in short, in denial.
As the movie plays out we see how Kay falls in and out of love rather quickly with a man named Louis (Tom Lycos) after a tea lead reader tells her it will happen. When Sweetie returns from a road trip of sorts with a man named Bob (Michael Lake) in tow, things go from bad to worse for the family. Eventually, however, they try to mend their broken fences and as they do we learn how Sweetie's condition came to be and how this condition has affected not just Sweetie, but also Kay and her development.
Sweetie can be a tough film to nail down. It's rather touching and emotionally involving though it frequently shows us just how selfish, insensitive and downright hostile its central characters can be, which at times can make them difficult to like or to connect with. That said, these flaws are only too real and they give the film an air of believability, in that as bizarre as things can and do get in the film, they don't feel particularly out of place or out of the realm of possibility. Campion laces her film with some rather effective black humor and a few moments so twisted that we can't help but laugh at them even if we know that we shouldn't and the cinematography really helps to accentuate these qualities in the film by focusing in on odd little details, the kind that help to add another layer to the picture.
None of this would work if the performances weren't up to par, and thankfully Campion made some wise choices in casting Karen Colston and Genevieve Lemon in the leads. These two ladies really fit into their characters' skin very well and wind up delivering passionate performances here without ever going so far over the top as to pull us out of the movie. They're the emotional core of the film and the different relationships that the movie explores do so by using them as an axel of sorts and it all revolves around them. The film also does an interesting job of bouncing back and forth between the world the two girls live in and the world they dream about living in, their ideal so to speak. Kay's romantic fantasies contrast rather nicely with Sweetie's dreams of fame and celebrity status, something that in the real world she believes herself to be entirely deserving of. The parents, however, dream of a normal family life, contrasting their characters intent and want with that of their daughters and playing the selfish against the selfless.
Shot with a great eye for detail and showing some truly impressive moments of artistry in terms of composition and color combinations, Sweetie always looks great which makes it easy to get through a few of the film's slower moments and overlook a couple of choppy editing choices. Campion would go on to bigger and better things shortly after this picture was made but Sweetie remains a testament to her creative abilities and talents as a filmmaker and as such, it's quite a fascinating picture.
Sweetie looks great in this AVC encoded 1080p 1.85.1 widescreen presentation. Given that the transfer was supervised by the film's DP and approved by its director, we can pretty safely assume that this is just how it's supposed to look - and it proves to be a very nice and detailed presentation. Colors look nice and natural, never oversaturated, while black levels are strong throughout. There aren't any problems with compression artifacts or edge enhancement and while a natural looking amount of film grain is present there are no problems with heavy print damage. There are a few scenes where the contrast is a bit on the hot side but again, it's possible that since the filmmakers were involved that it's supposed to look this way. All in all, there's really not much to complain about, and Criterion have delivered another excellent, detailed, textured and naturally film-like transfer.
The only audio option for the movie is, thankfully, a very good one. The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix on the disc sounds very good and we're given a very clean, clear sounding mix. There are no problems with any audible hiss or distortion and the levels are always properly balanced. Given that the film is as dialogue centric as it is, we don't get the most immersive surround sound experience in the world but the rear channels are active when the movie calls for it and they tend to do a very good job of filling in the background and providing some interesting ambient noise and effects. Optional English subtitles are provided.
Criterion has ported over all of the extras from their standard definition release, starting with the commentary track from director Jane Campion who is joined by her screenwriter Gerard Lee and her director of photography Sally Bongers. This is a pretty insightful talk that sheds a good bit of insight into the filmmaking process and more specifically into how the themes and ideas that are established early on in the film work their way through and evolve as the picture plays out. There's quite a bit of discussion here about the script and about subtleties that are in the film you might not pick up on the first time around in addition to traditional topics such as casting, locations and editing. It's a pretty active track with a lot of welcome information in it.
Additionally, there are three short films included here, the first of which is the eight minute An Exercise In Discipline: Peel which Campion made in 1982 and which follows a family's dispute over some discarded orange peels at the side of a road. Passionless Moments is a twelve minute film from 1983 that documents different vignettes from some couples in conflict, while the third film, also from 1983, is A Girl's Own Story, a twenty-nine minute short that deals with family issues and a domestic dispute. None of these shorts is quite on par with feature, but they are all interesting in their own right and worth checking out if you enjoyed Campion's other work.
Making Sweetie is a twenty-three minute interview from 1989 in which actresses Genevieve Lemon and Karen Colston discuss working with Campion on this picture, how they felt about their characters and their characters' respective quirks, and more. Also included on the disc is a twenty minute featurette entitled Jane Campion: The Film School Years in which the director has a conversation with Peter Thompson regarding her early work. Shot in 1989, it's an interesting discussion and you can definitely see the seeds of what Campion would sow in her later films starting to sprout here. Menus and chapter stops are also included, as is the film's original theatrical trailer and a still gallery. Also included inside the keepcase is a full color booklet containing an essay on the film and its director written by Dana Polan. All of the extras on the disc are presented in high definition.
Sweetie is just a really well made film all around. It's visually quite impressive but its story is both interesting and unique and told in such an unusual manner that you can't help but get pulled in once it starts moving. Criterion's Blu-ray release is rock solid in every way you'd want it to be - the transfer is excellent, the audio of great quality, and the extras both plentiful and complimentary of the main feature attraction. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.