|Writer/director Alexandre Rockwell|
|Rockwell with earlier wife Jennifer Beals|
|Rockwell and current wife, Karyn Parsons, with Lana and Nico|
|Rockwell with daughter Lana|
|Rockwell with daughter Lana|
SWEET THING B+ USA (91 mi) 2020 d: Alexandre Rockwell
My dad says that some people say Billie didn’t have a good voice, but he says that nobody else sang like her. — Billie (Lana Rockwell), on being named after Billie Holiday
Miserablism on parade, yet with a killer soundtrack, shot on 16mm in a naturalistic setting in grainy black and white, this is a defiantly unsentimental, low-budget indie film that initially feels mired in the poverty porn of alcoholism and family dysfunction, yet seen from a child’s perspective, where parental authority is so absent and deficient that these two kids basically have to raise themselves. One astonishing aspect of the film is that the mother and two kids all come from the director’s own family, as he’s married to the mother. Even more interesting, he was previously married to Jennifer Beals, who along with Sam Rockwell (no relation) is an executive producer on the film. The entire crew was only 12 people, most of whom were Alexandre Rockwell’s students from New York University, where he is Head of the Directing department at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts Grad Film Program. Few directors could make a film as distinctly raw and unembellished as this, which only gets better the longer you stick with it, becoming positively revelatory by the end. Much like his earlier short film LITTLE FEET (2013), the magic comes from featuring his own children, as they are the heart and soul of the picture. Shot in a cinéma-vérité style, made on next to nothing for $150,000, the film recalls Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive (1953), Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS (1973), and Benh Zeitlin’s 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #1 Beasts of the Southern Wild, where some of the imagery is a carbon copy from that film. Described by Quentin Tarantino as “one of the most powerful new films I’ve seen in years,” there is a raw, empowering spirit, but it initially feels bogged down in stereotypical dreariness, where everything that could possibly go wrong does, yet there’s an exhilaration of spirit expressed in the musical choices, becoming a central theme of the film, as it has a way of transporting them to other places, offering a kind of peace when there is none to be found. Billie (Lana Rockwell) and Nico (Nico Rockwell) are 15 and 11, two biracial kids living with their white father, Will Patton, yet he is in the grips of alcoholism and can’t keep a stable job, where they actually have to look after him most of the time. Spending most of their time alone, living on the margins, both avoid attending school and spend their days wandering around the neighborhood in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Billie fantasizes that Billie Holiday (played by Kelly Charpent) is her fairy godmother after learning she was named after her, abruptly changing to color, as if daydreaming, seeing faint images of her at the beach waving, like a faded picture in a photo album that is all she has to hold onto before returning back to black and white. Another color image has Holiday at her side, both looking into the mirror, which allows her to dream of a better life. The unending miserablism on display is wrenching to watch and is not for the faint of heart, as their father is just too drunk to notice any problems or daily changes in their lives, leaving them to fend for themselves, doing their best to entertain each other, remaining extremely close and supportive. The mood shifts when she sings a bedtime song to help put her brother to sleep, a refrain from Van Morrison’s iconic Sweet Thing (2015 Remaster) YouTube (4:22) that recurs throughout the film, becoming a loving spirit that guides the two of them through some tough times. There are two halves to this film, where the first half is submerged in misery, while the second half is a heartbreaking expression of youth, offering a poetic yearning for something better, interwoven by the sounds of the titular song. Some of the imagery is starkly beautiful, shot by Lasse Ulvedal Tolbøll, evocative of some of the abstract dreamy expressions of Harmony Korine’s JULIAN DONKEY-BOY (1999), a rare portrait of schizophrenia that few have ever seen. Winner of a Crystal Bear for Best Film in the Generation Kplus competition at the Berlin Film Festival, an award from the Children’s and Youth Jury, the naturalist performances of the children onscreen offer their own jarring authenticity, yet one of the marvels of this film are the 27 musical cues, giving an uplifting, elegiac feel, like Arvo Pärt: Spiegel im Spiegel YouTube (10:51), altering the tone of the film through music, adding another dimension, like opening up a new door, creating a more hopeful allure.
Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017) comes to mind (with far more financial backing), yet feels like a step up for these kids, who have fallen so far off the edge into dismal poverty that society would view them as invisible, a non-entity, outside the realm of all social service agencies, where in our everyday world kids like this simply don’t register, as even schools have likely lost track of them, existing only to themselves, with no one looking out for them. As it approaches Christmas, they each give one another something special (or something stolen), splashing water on their father’s face to help him face another day, where her father gives Billie a ukulele, which she immediately learns how to play, singing various songs of poetic elation. Their father makes a fuss about meeting their mother for Chinese food on Christmas day, but it ends in a disappointment, as she arrives with another man and never even gets out of the car, instead she squabbles endlessly with their father, with the other man getting out of the car and pummeling him to the ground, leaving without ever saying a word to her children, an extreme disappointment, which their father uses as an excuse to drink some more, getting raging drunk, stepping on Billie’s ukulele, really unaware of the damage he’s done, made even more deflating when he insists on cutting her hair, giving her a Christmas trim, which has her in tears, with her little brother insisting that it will grow back, as he cuts his own locks as well as an act of emotional support, yet the damage caused by their father can’t even be explained, as he’s just too far gone, eventually arrested by the police and taken to a sanitarium to get well, leaving the kids all alone. They’re supposed to spend the summer with their mother Eve, Karyn Parsons, about as far as possible from her role of Hilary in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990 – 96), at a beach home while their father recuperates, but they drink non-stop as well, coming under the thumb of her brutish white boyfriend, Beaux (M.L. Josepher), who orders them around through intimidation, making everything all about him, a thoroughly disgusting individual who starts making inappropriate sexual advances as well. Eve refuses to believe what her children are telling her, blaming them instead, insisting they apologize for ruining Beaux’s day, becoming an utter disgrace for a mother. But there’s no stopping the despicable behavior of Beaux, so they end up wandering the streets in search of something better, meeting Malik (Jabari Watkins), another free spirit about her age at a 4th of July fireworks celebration, his Afro hair and black face framed by the white hot explosions, a kid who hotwires cars and takes them on a joy ride, ending up at an isolated riverside location where they can swim and have fun and just be kids before walking back home. Malik seems like a wandering soul himself, with no real roots anywhere, and may also be as homeless as they are. When Eve goes off to work one morning, Beaux takes the opportunity to sexually reveal himself to both kids, leaving them no other choice, so Nico fends him off with a knife, stabbing him, with Malik breaking in and adding a kind of knock-out blow, as the three run away, calling themselves outlaws and renegades, eluding authorities, fleeing for their lives, discovering a newly found freedom along the railroad tracks and boatyards, breaking into a boat, stealing what little food they can find, before ending up in a more upscale neighborhood where they break into a huge estate that they discover is empty, as rich people often leave their homes deserted while they travel elsewhere. What follows is a fantasy celebration, eating ice cream, dressing up in costumes, elated in their newly discovered freedom, all set to the tune of Miriam Makeba’s Pata Pata, Miriam Makeba - Pata Pata (Stereo Version) - YouTube (3:00), which has the dreamlike vibe of BEETLEJUICE (1988), signifying freedom and ghostly mischief, delivering moments of pure unadulterated joy, where the film changes speed, quickening the pace, but also slows down into slow motion.
But when a neighbor spots them the next morning, they’re off again with a renewed spirit, giving rise to the daunting theme from BADLANDS, Carl Orff - Gassenhauer [1973 "Badlands" Version] YouTube (2:44), an irresistible and irrepressible melody that exerts innocence and a haunting beauty, unmistakingly associated with that movie, a lovers on the run crime drama that put Terrence Malick on the map with his exquisite cinematic poetry. These kids are similarly on the run, where the world suddenly opens up to them, offering vast landscapes and a sense of adventure, elegantly seen through their eyes, yet there’s a downbeat edge to what we see, as Nico grows tired of the impoverished instability, not really wanting to be a gangster anymore. Malik, on the other hand, has a way with these opportunities, unafraid of the challenges that await them, helping navigate their way through the unknown, exuding confidence and resilience in the face of life’s uncertainties, while Billie’s rich fantasy life continually intrudes, breaking into vibrant color while wishing for a better life, as distant memories and wayward dreams all coincide, creating a cinematic mosaic of the abstract, where the dream language exerts its own counterpoint to the hard-edged, dreary life they’ve come to know and expect, becoming a film within the film, portraying wandering souls in search of salvation, but all they’ve come to know are disappointments and neglect, with a full-out assault of violence. Billie’s singing pulls them through, offering a softly sung yet heartfelt intimacy that yearns for something positive and affirmative that remains elusively distant and hard to grasp. Easily the best part of the picture are these random collection of images associated with her, becoming the driving force of the film, where the evocative Van Morrison poetry offers a mood that is positive, even giddy, an exquisitely worded poem whose meaning is reconfigured throughout the film, yet ultimately offers them the freedom that doesn’t really exist in their lives, but can be felt and sensed, adding rare insight into the wonder and imagination of childhood, and a kind of awe to the moment. When they run into an eccentric interracial couple offering them food in their trailer home, the generosity is unexpected, yet appreciated, as it actually feels like a home, allowing them to sleep in a neighboring trailer, feeling somehow safe and protected, perhaps even happy. But the morning greets them with an unexpected suddenness, alarming Malik when the police are present, as the couple has turned them in, making his escape out the window where he is immediately shot, laying still on the ground, like a kind of memorial for all the black kids who have been shot by police, given further poetic resonance by the musical choice of Brian Eno’s anthem-like An Ending, An Ending (Ascent) YouTube (4:24), which utterly enthralls, providing depth and complexity to the moment, which is described as accidental, yet it happens all too often. By some stroke of luck, he survives, but can’t talk and lives in a hospital setting spending most of his time in a wheelchair, where they steal him out of there and hotwire a truck in another run for freedom, but Malik’s muted expression reveals all, as he’s alive, but internally damaged, no longer recognizing them. Billie’s eloquent narration brings the film to a close, revealing their father is successfully released from the sanitarium, looking happier, while their mother is a changed person as well, perhaps a bit nicer than before, finally jettisoned from an abusive relationship, as Beaux survived as well, but now struggles to put words together. There is a timeless feel to this film, which could be set in any era, as there isn’t even a hint of cellphones, or any other recognizable marker of the time period. This small gem of a film offers astonishing power and grace, taking viewers by surprise, connected by Billie’s singing, with the Van Morrison song eloquently playing over the end credits, looking forward, not backwards, actually feeling celebratory.
Van Morrison - Sweet Thing [Unplugged, 1971] YouTube (8:41)