Kay: “The tree.”
Louis: “Well, we’ll get another one.”
Kay: “Yeah, but this is our tree.”
Louis: “Look, it’s not gonna die. The roots grow really strong. They can split concrete.”
Years before Jane Campion would make a name for herself with such films as Bright Star (2009), In The Cut (2003), and probably most famously the Oscar winning The Piano (1993), she wrote and directed this brilliant psychological drama that stunningly explores the inner workings of a small, yet utterly complex family. Sweetie was Campion’s debut feature length film and with it she immediately proved her worth as a writer (the film was co-written by her and Gerard Lee) and director, and revealed her unique narrative and aesthetic vision. I was exposed to this film during a class on female directors during my first undergrad, and was immediately drawn to this odd, visually stunning tale, flush with metaphor and depth.
At the heart of it, this film is about a subtly neurotic and superstitious woman, Kay (Karen Colston), who’s attempting to forge her way as an independent adult. She has very few friends and everyone around her seems to think her quite eccentric. After a reading from her psychic she finds herself in the awkward situation of having to steal a co-worker’s fiancé, Louis (Tom Lycos), as she believes that they were destined to be together. From this moment we fast-forward with the couple, seeing only a few important moments in the development of their relationship until the moment that Lou planted a tree for Kay in their back yard. Believing that the tree could prove some sort of omen for their relationship she rejects it, snaps, and uproots the tree, hiding it underneath the bed in the spare room before anything bad can happen. Although she then moves into the spare bedroom to guard the decaying sapling, everything seems reasonably fine; however their relationship issues are increasingly bubbling underneath the surface. Though the tensions in their relationship seems to be stuck at a simmer, it begins to boil over with the arrival of Kay’s unhinged punk rock sister, Dawn, AKA ‘Sweetie’ (Geneviève Lemon), and her drug addled ‘manager’ Bob.
From this point Sweetie, as well as the rest of Kay’s family, begins to unravel the stability of Kay’s life and her relationship with Louis. The trials and tribulations of the family, Louis, and Bob, beautifully mirror real life’s propensity to be filled with comedy, drama, pain, and revelation. The dysfunction inherent in all of the relationships comes to light but in a remarkable fashion. While many of the issues addressed or hinted at have often been used as fodder for film and literary plots, the way that Campion addresses them skirts cliché and demonstrates a level of finesse and skill not often seen in a debut feature. The talent that shines through in Sweetie most definitely portends Campion's gifts that she would expound upon in her later works.
Aside from the fascinating off-kilter story of this peculiar familial system, and the splendid way that Campion deals with such issues, let me enumerate a few other reasons that I feel compelled to turn you on to this fantastic film. First and foremost, the way that the film was shot is brilliant! The use of out of the ordinary framing and composition for scenes is incredibly engaging and it would often seem that there is something that can be read underneath the surface of every scene. Secondly, and something that goes hand in hand with the aesthetics of the film, Campion imbued this film with an incredible amount of metaphorical layers. There is a certain almost indescribable depth to the film that forces me to question everything and read into all of the subtle context in order to gain a more complete understanding of the somewhat simple story. Third, and finally, the acting is glorious. Geneviève Lemon and Karen Colston in particular effortlessly embody their roles as utterly opposing sibling personalities. The one reserved (Kay) and the other an unapologetic train wreck (Sweetie), they seem to have been made for these roles and their interaction with each other truly makes you believe that they have been embroiled in this strange sibling rivalry all their lives.
It is for all of the aforementioned reasons and more that I implore you to check out this fantastic film, I promise that you won't regret it. Plus, the Criterion Collection's beautiful release of Sweetie happens to come with some amazing extras, such as Campion's early short films and much more, that will further give you a glimpse into the creative process of an amazing writer/director.
- Edward Hill