Putting nails underneath car wheels, Christmas presents wrapped in tinfoil and a stolen gun – none of these things are particularly sweet, but the opposite can be said for the wonderful Billie and Nico, a brother and sister who deserve the world but have only ever been offered rubble in their lifetime. Sweet Thing follows the strongly bonded duo on their various adventures navigating childhood and absent parents, doing the best they can with very little guidance. Sweet Thing will draw you in with its stylistic choices and grounded performances and linger on the brain as a wonderful addition to these gritty social realism dramas we tend to see less often nowadays.
Alexandre Rockwell’s feature is a gripping tale of parental absence and economic hardships, with enough humanity injected into it to avoid it feeling one-dimensional. It is a story that questions what it means to hold labels such as being a parent, a friend, a positive influence in someone else’s life. There is always a level of responsibility that must be acknowledged when looking after children, and Sweet Thing acts as a painful reminder that far too often people are unable to take on that task in a way that keeps the children’s health and safety in mind. If no one older than them is behaving like an adult, how are the children expected to behave appropriately?
And yet, given all they have been through, neither of the siblings are inherently badly behaved or unable to express their emotions in a way that is deemed unexpected from someone their age. Sweet Thing is able to go deeper than the expected “kids behaving badly” trope, which is also refreshing to observe.
Their onscreen chemistry and relationship is dazzling. With the main cast partly being made up of Rockwell’s actual family – Lana Rockwell playing Billie, Nico Rockwell playing Nico and Karyn Parsons as Eve (the siblings’ real mother) – it is no surprise that the dynamics between them are coarse and electric. The film could be argued as relying too strongly on these bonds, failing to evenly distribute attention to other relationships on screen, such as the one between Billie and Malik (Jabari Watkins) which is filled with youthful adoration.
Telling tales of woe from a child’s perspective has a harrowing impact, and in the case of Sweet Thing, is rather hard hitting. To capture the effect of the complexities of parental abuse and effectively shying away from cheesy cliches is something to be celebrating in itself. On occasion it would be more than fair to strike up a comparison to Roald Dahl’s Matilda in terms of the toxic relationship between children and parents, and with a much sharper edge to it. The positions of the parents is raw and real, and you are always brought back to the children’s experience and allowed to feel that upset which stays with you until the film’s final moments.
The most striking element of Sweet Thing is its visually stylistic choices. The film’s use of black and white places the story both within history and existing beyond a historic timeline, and relates to how the children, particularly Billie, feel, as though there are no uplifting pigments to their lived experience. But amidst the starkly contrasted imagery, vibrancy shines through at certain points in the narrative, be that heartwarming memories or fun trips away to the beach with their cocktail-drinking “mum” (not their real mum). These overly saturated snapshots appear filled with glee, making their elimination and the return to black and white all the more jarring.
The narrative, particularly so in the second half, doesn’t let up lightly. You may experience the odd dip in narrative engagement, yet it is hard to look ahead and predict how the narrative will end. The last ten minutes will have you feeling tense and leave a bittersweet taste in the mouth.
Sweet Thing does well to keep you engaged throughout, and its core cast succeed at supplying the audience with rich performances to create a sense of authenticity, making the piece all the more heartfelt. It is far from perfect, but a touching tale to soothe the soul and crush it all over again.
Sweet Thing premiered in Theatres and Via Virtual Cinemas on 18 June, 2021