Review: Sweet Thing

New York indie standard bearer Alexandre Rockwell is mainly known for giving Steve Buscemi his first leading man role in the 1992 underground hit In the Soup, which also happened to be Rockwell’s debut. Since then he’s maintained a career with the same formula—bittersweet black-and-white studies of people living on the margins—but diminishing returns. His latest has the feel of something that was influenced by many other low-budget movies, though Rockwell has been at this for so long that it could very well be he’s plagiarizing his own work. He’s certainly picking from his own tree: the two main protagonists are his own children, and their mother is played by their own mother and Rockwell’s wife.

Adolescent Billie (Lana Rockwell) is raising her younger brother Nico (Nico Rockwell) in a broken down apartment in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Though they live with their father, Adam (Will Patton), he’s drunk most of the time and only occasionally employed. Adam loves his kids and they return the affection, but he seems unable to cope with anything approaching responsibility. One day he’s arrested for vagrancy and sent off to hospital rehab, thus forcing Billie and Nico to move in with their estranged mother, Eve (Karyn Parsons), and her boyfriend, Beaux (ML Josepher), neither of whom really wants them there. Eve puts on the airs of a caring mother but is more interested in her stalled career as a singer and her wine. Constantly distracted, she doesn’t seem concerned so much with Beaux’s abuse, which eventually comes to bear on the children. Eve gets defensive when Billie hints at Beaux’s sexual predilections toward her, but seems more threatened by Billie as a rival (“you’re not going to ruin the good thing I got”) than horrified by the possibility of her teenage daughter being raped. In any case, when Billie and Nico make friends with an indigent kid named Malik (Jabari Watkins), the three decide to steal a car and make their way to Florida.

Rockwell’s obvious affection for people who can’t afford what we now take for granted as the bare necessities (cell phones, internet, takeout food) lends his movies a kind of timelessness that’s difficult to believe but easy to like. And while his portrayal of the effects of alcohol on the impoverished is riddled with stereotypes and cliches, he makes up for them with subtle emotional indicators. More to the point, he allows his young actors plenty of freedom to explore their characters (reportedly, much of the dialogue was improvised) and the result is more honest and affecting than your average indie study of homelessness and broken families. Though it’s not likely to win Rockwell the same measure of acclaim and exposure as the woolier, funnier In the Soup, it will at least maintain his track record as probably the most dedicated indie filmmaker of his generation. 

Opens Oct. 29 in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645). 

Sweet Thing home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Black Horse Productions

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