Sweet Thing: Unsolid Ground, by David Bax
Coming of age movies about kids living at the bottom edge of the economy have a surprisingly good track record. From Ken Loach’s Kes (kind of the urtext of the genre) to Hector Babenco’s Pixote to Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, the misery of poverty and the joy of childhood combine for a heady mix and–with the occasional Beasts of the Southern Wild aside–it’s actually impressive how many directors have resisted the urge to patronize these children. Sweet Thing, the latest from American indie veteran director Alexandre Rockwell, may hit a bit on the nose here and there but it has the heart, vigor and, most importantly, the perspective to land itself within the better camp of this longtime cinematic tradition.
Teenager Billie (Lana Rockwell) and her younger brother, Nico (Nico Rockwell), live in a rundown apartment in an unnamed, wintry East coast city–someplace where they call a liquor store a “package store”–with their father (Will Patton). He attempts to bring in a few bucks working as a department store Santa Claus but, even when he stays sober enough to keep the job, the money seems to go back to drink. So Billie and Nico hustle for cash, collecting bottles and popping people’s tires in exchange for kickbacks from the tire repair place. But when their dad’s alcoholism gets him institutionalized, they go to stay with their mom (Karyn Parsons) and her boyfriend (M.L. Josepher). Despite a relocation to a comparatively more idyllic (though still rather shabby) beach community, the new living arrangement proves to be even more dire. So Billie, Nico and their new friend Malik (Jabari Watkins) run away with a loose plan to follow the shore south to Florida to locate Malik’s father.
If you haven’t put it together yet based on the names, the two leads are indeed Rockwell’s children. Parsons, in fact, is their real life mother. Before you start making accusations of nepotism, indulgence and vanity, though, you should know that both young Rockwells are very, very good and Sweet Thing succeeds to the extent that it does largely on their energy, their commitment and their extraordinary ability to imbue Billie and Nico with a sense of tragic and sympathetic interiority.
Perhaps, though, that effect is enhanced by Rockwell’s choice to shoot in black and white. The lack of color and the use of close-ups give us little opportunity to focus on much other than the actors’ faces. Still, that’s a lot of responsibility to put on the performers but the entire cast proves up to the task. It should be pointed out that certain sections of Sweet Thing are actually in color. The reasons for these moments are clear as day and almost predictably schematic but that doesn’t change the fact that the first time the film snaps back to black and white, the effect is devastating.
Sweet Thing is a story about children but it’s also an unsubtle diatribe against the dangers of alcoholism. Patton, Parsons and Josepher all play different kinds of drunks and do so well but the film risks oversimplification by drawing such stark and easy parallels between drinking and dangerous stewardship.
Other parallels include that clearly drawn between our young runaways and the children of Peter Pan, from which Billie reads to Nico early on. Meanwhile, the appropriation of Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauser” on the soundtrack–which has been used in many movies but is most closely associated with Badlands–underlines the on-the-run, road trip nature of this film’s second half. Sweet Things often tests the boundaries that separate pastiche from homage from straight up derivation but it’s shot through with an honesty and clarity of purpose that keep it on its own grounds.