A low-budget family affair with a crew made up of director Alexandre Rockwell’s film students, Sweet Thing feels like a home movie as seen through the eyes of children.
Teen Billie (Lana Rockwell) lives with younger brother Nico (Nico Rockwell) and alcoholic father Adam (Will Patton). Their dad is not a bad man and even when drunk he is entertaining, albeit with moments that leave his kids vulnerable. Their mum Eve (Karyn Parsons) has taken up with another man, Beaux (M.L. Josepher), and although he professes to like kids, we can see he’s bad news.
Billie is the one to parent both her dad and Nico, collecting cans to make a few coins and making sure Nico gets to school. We know that this must be a precarious existence and the problem comes when their dad is forced to enter rehab and they must go and live with their mother in Florida.
Filmed in grainy black and white, the tone deliberately references music and films from the 30s and 40s. Billie is named after Billie Holiday and she imagines the star caring for her like a mother at times when she is at her lowest. When Billie and Nico arrive in Florida, it is at first sunshine and playfulness, indicated by a brief switch to supersaturated colour. But Eve is also an addict and Beaux is abusive, making the kids flee with troubled neighbour Malik (Jabari Watkins) and the black and white palette to return.
The Sweet Thing of the title is a Van Morrison song that Billie sings to calm Nico, a favourite of their dad’s and perhaps a sad anthem to his lost love. It imbues the film with a folky sweetness as the three ‘renegades and outlaws’ live on the lam. There are moments of drama, particularly in the first act, but the pace ambles along and eventually runs out of steam. For something that felt rough around the edges and non-conventional, the story arc hits many expected beats and the third act feels contrived and inauthentic.
The two Rockwells, children of the director and, I suspect, Karyn Parsons, are the highlights of the film. Lana carries the heaviest load and is believable in her strengths and weaknesses. Often the group dialogue feels improvised, particularly when the three kids meet adults, and it gives a naturalness to the story that is needed.
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