Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sweetie is the major feature launch that put New Zealand-born filmmaker Jane Campion on the road to the remarkable An Angel at My Table and the popular The Piano, all films about troubled young women searching for their personal identities. Campion's mannered visual style and eccentric characters animate an intriguing study of a family dealing with mental illness.
Glum working girl Kay (Karen Colston) steals another girl's fiancé to fulfill a superstitious 'destiny.' She and Louis (Tom Lycos) cohabit successfully even though they're only intermittently attracted to each other. Kay's disturbed sister Dawn, known as "Sweetie" (Geneviève Lemon) suddenly arrives and rudely takes up residence with her boyfriend "manager" Bob (Andre Pataczek). Unstable, over-emotional and unpredictably destructive, Sweetie drives Kay crazy. The girls' estranged parents Gordon and Flo (Jon Darling and Dorothy Barry) hope that Sweetie will settle down at Kay's; Gordon visits and finds the household in a mess. Sweetie ends up abandoned at Kay's place while the others venture to the outback to visit Flo, who has become a cook for a group of cowboys called Jackaroos. When they return Sweetie is as difficult to handle as ever.
Sweetie is definitely original and many audiences have also found it to be hilarious. Jane Campion's intense examination of a mostly disenchanted group of individuals is often funny, yet is really a dreary little tragedy. Kay is a borderline melancholic stumbling along in a rudderless life. She's almost mystic about her private world of superstition. Normally withdrawn on the job, she suddenly makes a play for a workmate's boyfriend for the solitary reason that a fortune teller predicted that her destined mate will have a lock of hair on his forehead in the shape of a question mark. Otherwise Kay seems to be in short supply of reasons to live and breath, until the unwelcome Sweetie crashes into her life and simply leaves her no time to become depressed.
Campion films all of this in a detached series of mostly static scenes with dozens of eccentric compositions stressing dislocation and bleak disorder. Kay's head is jammed into the corner of shots for close-ups, and ragged views of asphalted driveways and trash-strewn rooms express the essential joylessness of much of her existence. Sweetie communicates the morbid vibe of graphic novels about the depressed lower middle class, a Despair Comix feel. It also offers some strange symbolism via a freshly planted sapling that Kay secretly uproots and hides under her bed. Although her actions are given a narrative excuse, we can't help but detect an authorial attempt to make a statement on "the denial of life" or "a rejection of fertility." At least it's subtle. Sweetie is refreshingly free of groaningly meaningful symbols, like a grand piano that stays in tune even after a week's abandonment in the ocean surf.
Geneviève Lemon's Sweetie is a simply terrific character, an unmanageable disaster that anchors the film in the real world of tangled relationships and responsibilities. Sweetie is an overweight and coarse young woman on medications for manic depression. She lives in a Baby Jane-like fantasy outgrowth of an angelic infancy as Daddy's wonder child; we're given flashback images of her posed in perfect pink dresses. Now an unsightly mess of punk clothing and ratted hairdo, Sweetie leaps up every morning with her narcoleptic manager and cheerfully chants, "This is the day it happens for us!" even though their fabulous career in the performing arts hasn't yet reached delusion status. They instead leech off of Kay, eating her food and wrecking her house; Sweetie even tries to seduce the unflappable Louis. Kay openly dislikes her sister and constantly urges her to 'move on,' but Sweetie becomes destructive at the slightest suggestion contrary to her wishes. She screws up her face and maintains her denial by lashing out and using emotional blackmail. Feeling unloved, Sweetie chews up Kay's treasured set of porcelain horse figurines and bleeds profusely from the mouth. She's destroyed Kay's most cherished possession but has succeeded in reclaiming the center of attention.
Incest was a theme in the earlier Campion student films and is linked to the source of Sweetie's disturbance. Sweetie's elderly father can't break away from his vision of his adorable baby. He makes no effort to stop Sweetie when she bathes him inappropriately, an event observed by Kay. Even more disturbingly, the clearly dangerous Sweetie is left alone to play with a neighbor's child. Kay has long since abandoned any notion of being in control.
Sweetie's view of mental illness in the family situation is too honest to be sordid. Kay and her parents lack the emotional resources to deal with Sweetie's offensive behavior, and simply do their best to endure it. It's a vast improvement over films that romanticize mentally handicapped people by presenting them as cute or eccentrically gifted exceptions to the laws of reality: Rain Man, Benny & Joon, Untamed Heart.
Campion and co-writer Gerard Lee rely on familiar plot diversions to give the story a structure. Kay and Gordon ditch Sweetie to go on a road trip to recover Mother, providing a tonal break and a bit of narrative sanity. Louis eventually leaves Kay as she becomes more withdrawn. With mother and father reunited, Sweetie moves back home and soon goes off the deep end to provide a memorably demented ending. She strips naked, covers herself in dirt, climbs into her old tree house and refuses to come down.
Jane Campion's offbeat tale again retreats behind conventional devices. Sweetie resembles nothing less than a movie monster out of control, and we can sense that the show is converging on a violent finish. What saves the picture is not Campion's 'easy out' resolution of the Sweetie problem, but the frequent visual hints that Kay might discover her own personal 'cure,' if her life would just settle down. This young woman who uproots plants and then feels guilty about it may yet find the courage to personally blossom. All she needs is a sane place to put down a root or two of her own. It's a cruel observation -- Kay cannot thrive until her mad 'twin' is gone from her life -- but it has the ring of truth.
Criterion's DVD of Sweetie presents the Australian comedy-drama in a sparkling enhanced transfer supervised by the film's director of photography Sally Bongers. Producer Kim Hendrickson has worked closely with the director on the extras. Actresses Geneviève Lemon and Karen Colston reunite to discuss the experience of filming the movie, and a 1989 interview piece has critic Peter Thompson questioning Ms. Campion about her student work.
The disc offers three of Campion's excellent short films. An Exercise in Discipline: Peel is a color examination of a roadside family quarrel. Passionless Moments is an absurdist exercise that isolates meaningless events as defining moments in people's lives. A Girl's Own Story is a strange and disturbing tale of schoolgirl fantasies that ends in incest and misery. Trailers and still galleries are included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary with Campion and Bongers and screenwriter Gerard Lee, Making Sweetie featurette, Campion's early short films An Exercise in Discipline: Peel, Passionless Moments, and A GirlŐs Own Story; 1989 conversation between Campion and critic Peter Thompson, behind-the-scenes photos and production stills, trailer, insert booklet with a essay by Dana Polan
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 16, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson