Film Reviews

Sweetie Jane Campion

Rating - 10/10

And you thought your sibling was bad.

Thirteen months earlier, Kay (Karen Colston) seemed to have her life finally together. A visit to a local fortune teller told her, she would find true love with a man bearing a question mark upon his face. Thanks to a freckle and a curled lock of hair looming down his forehead, the superstitious Kay became convinced that Transcendental Meditation addict Louis (Tom Lycos), a co-worker’s fiancé, fit the bill. Soon the couple entered "serial monogamy" and moved into a cramped house adorned with thick carpets and darkly colored wallpaper. 

A little more than a year later, paradise appears to be lost. When Louis, to mark their love, plants a sickly tree in the concrete backyard of the couple's rented accommodation, dendrophobic Kay foresees the ailing plant as a bad omen. Soon, her worst fears come to fruition: the couple no longer sleep together, share the same room or barely converse with one another. Kay’s plight increases when her caustic estranged sister Dawn (Genevieve Lemon) blows into town unannounced and promptly decides to crash at Kay’s pad with her junkie “producer” boyfriend (Michael Lake) in tow.

Thus begins the audience’s first contact with the title character of New Zealand born director Jane Campion’s 1989 feature length debut film Sweetie: an eccentric black comedy centering on the dysfunctional relationship between two conflicting siblings in urban Australia. Bewilderingly strange and consciously off-kilter, Sweetie is the remarkably original debut of Jane Campion, who later garnered further fame and acclaim for her more sober and serious Academy Award nominated film, The Piano (1993).  

Set in Sydney, the bulk of Sweetie pivots between the skewed dynamic between two opposing Freudian forces: the reserved super ego (Kay) and the wild id (Dawn). Unlike the sexually inhibited, thin and dour Kay, Dawn is an emotional hurricane; a boisterous, overweight, disheveled and sexually unrestricted mess that devastates everything in her path and acts according to her own anarchistic set of rules. Even the film’s first reference to Dawn is one of wanton destruction; a point registered when Kay displays a set of toy horses she had as a child to a neighborhood boy and informs him that one of them features a leg broken by her sister. 
Unfortunately for Kay, her parents are of little help. Referred to as Sweetie by her father Gordon (Jon Darling), Dawn is still a glowing, little girl in his distorted mind. Despite her talent being restricted to a “chair trick,” Gordon still blindly believes Sweetie has the acumen and personality to become a star. Denying reality however, Gordon fails to glimpse the obvious fact that his adult, twenty-something daughter is clearly mentally ill.
Constantly yearning for attention, the childlike Sweetie never seems to have fully matured, in spite of her uninhibited sexual mores. Psychologically undeveloped, Sweetie remarkably divides the sexes. Her mother and Kay, particularly the latter, hold deep reservations about her behavior. In contrast, the film’s male characters seem to be drawn to her and unconsciously consumed by her: eliciting sympathy and a conversational frankness that her female compatriots refuse to enter into.
While Louis and Gordon are strangely compassionate toward this adult monster, Kay is disturbed and repulsed by Sweetie's attention-craving antics and obnoxious demeanor. After all, Sweetie is an adult, albeit one who prefers playing infantile mind games to actually acting her age. Regardless of Sweetie’s clear-cut psychological problems, Campion never molds the character into a creature designed to elicit complete empathy due to her condition. Rather, we witness the adult Sweetie only as a comically unnerving and terrorizing being; an “evil spirit” in Kay’s words.
Interestingly, despite the darkness lurking within Sweetie’s spoiled character, cinematographer Sally Bongers photographs the film with wide angle shots bristling with color and vitality. Visually, Sweetie is disarmingly bright and sunny. Nevertheless, Bongers does produce an array of in-your-face close-ups, bewildering angles and offbeat images designed to personify Sweetie’s fractured state of mind. The resulting textures produce a film demonstrating lucid thematic and contextual links to similar works such as Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994) and Catherine Breillat’s disturbing A ma soeur (2001): two post-Sweetie pictures focusing on the twisted relationships between young women, albeit in rather divergent tones.
Furthermore, one can also find striking similarities between Campion’s film and two of Tennessee Williams’ most famous plays: A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie. As in A Streetcar Named Desire, a young couple is unexpectedly visited by the woman’s mentally unstable sister, who quickly makes the couple’s home her own. Operating almost as an inversion of A Streetcar Named Desire, Sweetie finds the film’s title character taking on the more intimidating and unrestrained characteristics embodied by Williams’ Stanley, rather than the faded Southern belle Blanche. 
However, whereas the fragile Blanche is increasingly pushed to the brink by Stanley, Sweetie mentally riles her sister by engaging in a quasi-animalistic struggle for power and control of the household's occupants including Louis. Subsequently, the relationship between Sweetie and Kay deteriorates even further: descending into violence and harmful exploitative moments perhaps consciously designed to elicit further sympathy amongst Sweetie's peers for her cause. As with the delicate Laura in The Glass Menagerie, the shy Kay prides a childhood collection of toy animals, one of which includes a precious toy damaged by a loved one: in Laura’s case a glass horse-like unicorn by a high school crush; in Kay’s case a plastic horse by her sister.
Additionally, both The Glass Menagerie and Sweetie feature parents who are either unable or unwilling to accept the truth of their respective daughter’s ill-health, nor the boundaries of reality. The tension between the contradictory worlds of illusion and reality filtered throughout Williams’ work is also reflected in Sweetie, in which the title character has been allowed to reside in a deluded world of fancy and unsustainable dreams. Maintained principally by her father, this “fairyland” sickens Kay, who earnestly strives for her parents to commit to a separation between illusion and reality in order to acquire Sweetie the help she clearly needs.
By the film’s final moments, their collective failure to halt Sweetie’s influence results in tragic consequences. Yet, in spite of the extremities of her characters and the film’s mis-en-scene, Jane Campion manages to inject a degree of authenticity into the proceedings. Performed with aplomb, humor and calamity, both Colston and Lemon are remarkable in their roles as the film's two dueling sisters.
As a result, quirky though it may be Sweetie never feels overly far-fetched. Campion's characters appear genuine and realistic, filled with flaws, nuances and peculiarities containing an experiential, everyday truth within Campion’s eccentric parameters. Aided by the film’s sardonic mixture of black comedy and internal tragedy, Sweetie is a unique, visual experience; one that strikingly lingers on without mawkish pathos, but rather with a bluster of ideas, images, fantasies and tragic-comic idiosyncrasies.
A truly remarkable debut. One of the  best and most underrated films of the 1980’s.