Sweetie (Jane Campion, 1989)

by Douglas Buck September 2, 2019 4 minutes (873 words) 4K Restoration Cinéma Moderne, part of the monthly CELLEuloid program

Kay (Karen Colston), an eccentric (to say the least) loner, shamelessly steals the just engaged Louis (Tom Lycos) away from his new fiancée (a fellow office co-worker of both), not because she has any genuine affinity for the poor shlep, but because a curl of his hair resembles a question mark, which matches up with a psychic ‘tea leaf’ reading she had earlier… then grows just as suddenly put-off with anxiety after the naïve, good natured Louis (now her husband) decides to plant a single small tree in the middle of the cracked concrete front yard of their new home, which portends of grave things for the superstitious Kay, who eventually feels she has no choice but to get rid of it.

And all this happens before the arrival of the titular character at about the halfway point – that being Kay’s plump, heavily-mascara-eyed and egregiously childish sister Dawn, aka Sweetie, (described as a ‘dark force’ by Kay), played by Genevieve Lemon, in a startling performance, with her drugged-out ‘manager’/boyfriend Bob (Michael Lake) in tow, to wreak havoc in their – well – already fairly unhappy home… followed soon after by the combative sister’s parents, who have their own train wreck of a relationship going on – with mamma Mrs Schneller (Jean Hadgraft) having just left daddy Teddy (Paul Livingston), mostly over his continued coddling and protection of the increasingly unmanageable and destructive Sweetie.

Sweetie and beau Bob

Sweetie forced by her sister to spit up from her bleeding mouth Kay’s favorite ceramic animals that in pure childish spite she has broken and is chewing painfully on, after being scolded by Kay. Sweetie, dangerously high in a backyard treehouse, naked, blowing loud farts down at her father. Louis’ single tree, discovered long dead lying under his bed. Teddy, sitting alone in his house, surrounded by a series of cellophane-wrapped dinners prepared for him by Mrs Schneller before she left him. Sweetie washing a naked Teddy in the bathtub, her hand gleefully washing parts perhaps she shouldn’t be (then going on to make an aggressive pass at Kay’s husband Louis at the beach). Imagined images of a younger, purer Sweetie, singing and dancing, that Teddy conjures up to remind himself of the unconditional pride and belief he once had in his daughter, before mental instability and time spent in mental hospitals took over.

Sis Kay

Campion presents a bizarre and irreverent look at mental illness and burrowing, deeply see-sawing behaviour within a family, constantly swaying between enabling and rejecting (often doing both at the same time) in a desperate bid to attain some stability in their own lives (which are already filled with dysfunction – Sweetie may be an exaggerated, grotesque-sized example from the group, but she is by no means alone in being out-to-lunch in this family, speaking to that chicken-or-egg thing). In fact, Kay’s greatest anger towards Sweetie stems from her jealousy that she’ll never be granted the sense of freedom she imagines her sister has because of the unconditional parental love Sweetie received (in irresponsible spades)… and she feels she never did.

Even within the raw pain, Campion never strays far from amusement. The scene of a barely coherent Bob, for instance, nodding off at a restaurant before the delusional Teddy, who has set up this meeting to eagerly talk with him about his plans for his ‘talented’ daughter is a perfect example. Even with the humor Campion brings with Bob’s face descending into his plate, she never lets us lose track of Teddy’s profound pain at having his absurd hopes for his daughter dashed yet again.

Mom

There are inspired flights of fancy, like a black and white time-lapse sequence (of Kay’s nightmare of her greatest fear – namely, trees growing and digging their roots deep into the soil – you know, like the way a strong family is said to do – get it?) or a sudden extreme dutch camera angle, and occasional over-the-top funny scenes, like the absolutely bizarr-o ranch of shirtless dancing cowboys that the three family members, trying to escape for a little vacation away from nutso Sweetie, in the desperate hopes that she’ll be gone when they return, stumble upon in the night.

Looking back, it’s so strange, I almost wonder if I imagined that cowboy scene, which begs the question on whether we’re supposed to believe it’s really happening, or just a figment of occasionally returning narrator Kay,… or perhaps just director Campion taking us down a weird rabbit hole making the madness (and sadness) palatable with her cheeky dry observational approach.

Dad

Sweetie isn’t a perfect or great film. The absurdist and distancing nature of Campion’s approach makes the ending far less tragic than perhaps it was meant to be experienced (I think anyway) and it seems to lose a bit of direction in the last third or so that it never really reclaims (other than in the brilliant cowboy ranch scene that I’m not even sure happened). Yet, it remains a wonderfully quirky vision, a stunning feature debut from a unique director. Campion is an inspiration to filmmakers in general, female directors in specific (just as those crazy chick programmers at CELLEuloid like it!).

Sweetie (Jane Campion, 1989)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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