Sweetie Review

Sweetie - Movie Directed by Jane Campion


Sweetie is the debut film from writer-director Jane Campion, and to be totally frank, it completely shocked me. Its content is bizarre. Its composition is stunning. And its themes are both brutally heavy and totally mysterious. I can’t say I totally wrapped my head around the thing – it loses the literal and metaphorical plot a few too many times, perhaps – but it definitely engaged me and made me really excited to dig into Campion’s too-short filmography over the coming weeks.

The film is named after its most dynamic supporting character. Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon) re-enters the life of her sister, Kay (Karen Colston), after it has already begun to unravel. But we meet Kay a little over a year earlier when a fortune teller predicts that she’ll soon meet a man with a question mark on his face. The next day, he appears in the form of Louis (Tom Lycos). Although he just got engaged to one of Kay’s coworkers, they nonetheless strike a quick romantic flame and decide to move in together.

In a matter of 13 months, that flame is all but extinguished. Louis wants to plant a small tree in their backyard, but Kay has a bad feeling about it. She removes it one night and withdraws from Louis – opting to sleep alone, abstain from sex, and talk to and about him like they’re siblings. That’s when Kay’s real sibling arrives, in the company of a strange bloke named Bob (Michael Lake). Sweetie suffers from mental illness and swings wildly and frequently between energetic and fun-loving on one hand to destructive, cruel, and animalistic on the other. As she gets worse, their parents (Jon Darling and Dorothy Barry) get involved, and we begin to see how each woman became the way she is.

We don’t meet Sweetie until about 40 minutes into the (100-minute total) movie. As electric and disturbing as the character and Genevieve Lemon’s performance are, I actually found Kay’s life, plight, and idiosyncrasies more compelling. Part of that is the way Campion and her cinematographer, Sally Bongers, choose to shoot the film. Every seemingly mundane set is punched up with a strange, colorful flourish, while every ordinary scene contains an extreme angle or four. The parking garage where she tells Louis they’re fated to be together has cement pillars that look like candy canes, and when they try to schedule an appointment for sex – it’s filmed like someone trying to peak into a room before we cut to everyone’s business being prominently displayed. Even if you don’t engage with Sweetie on an emotional level, it’s hard to watch it and not frequently sit slack-jawed at some of its bold stylistic choices.

But circling back to Kay, Karen Colston gives her the right amount of energy for the arc she undergoes in the film and to mark the momentous occasion when Sweetie bursts onto the scene. Lemon, somehow, seems to understand this character fully. There are things she does that are pitiful and others that are monstrous, and all of it comes back to inform us how a life spent dealing this would inform why Kay is struggling the way she is.

There are some digressions – like the cowboys – that I think the film doesn’t need. It’s ultimately a five-hander with more than enough happening among them to support the film’s run time and more. With how breathtaking the filmmaking is, and how strong the acting is across the board, I suppose I wanted a little more out of the finished product. But ultimately, it’s a debut feature – a great one at that – and a film I have no doubt will age beautifully with me, especially as I add more Campion context this summer.

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