Sweet Thing: An underappreciated director returns with style

Alexandre Rockwell has made a lively coming-of-age fable

Sweet Thing: Alexandre Rockwell’s memorable new flick

Film Title: Sweet Thing

Director: Alexandre Rockwell

Starring: Lana Rockwell, Nico Rockwell, Jabari Watkins, Will Patton, Karyn Parsons

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 91 min

Fri, Sep 10, 2021, 05:00

   

In the early 1990s, Hollywood executives began making an annual pilgrimage to Sundance in search of the next big thing. Early indie superstars included Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, the quartet who contributed chapters to the portmanteau film Four Rooms. 

Of these, the wildly and distinctively talented Anders and Rockwell haven’t subsequently been quite as feted as the other two. It is a great pity that Anders’s last theatrical release was Things Behind the Sun in 2001; Sweet Thing, meanwhile, is Rockwell’s first feature since 2013’s Little Feet.

A lively, coming-of-age fable featuring Rockwell’s family – including wife and former Fresh Prince star Karyn Parsons, daughter Lana and son Nico – Sweet Thing has been described by Tarantino as one of the most powerful new films to emerge in years. It’s certainly memorable. Look askance and Sweet Thing occupies the same lesser-spotted America as Sean Baker’s beguiling chronicles of breadline living in Tangerine, The Florida Project and the incoming Red Rocket. Look again and it’s a charming, uplifting fable.

Billie (Lana Rockwell), who was named after Billie Holliday, lives with her little brother Nico (Nico Rockwell), her dad (Will Patton), and little by way of adult supervision. Dad is loving – “I’m really happy that you’re my kid” he tells Lana, quite sincerely – but so hopelessly drunk he can barely remain upright to twirl a roadside sign in a panda suit, the closest thing he has to gainful employment. A Christmas trim sees him cutting clumps from Billie’s gorgeous curly hair. Nico cuts clumps from his own hair in solidarity. 

Dad is sent to the drunk tank at a judge’s behest, and the kids are packed off to stay with mom (Parsons) and her abusive boyfriend Beaux (ML Josepher). They are also drunks but of a “different kind”, as Billie’s voiceover notes.

When Billie flags that Beaux has made inappropriate advances, her mother’s response is emblematic of her parenting skills and style: “I don’t want to hear another f**king word about this . . . you keep your little porn fantasies to yourself.” No matter: The kids soon find a kindred spirit in neglected teen Malik (Jabari Watkins) and their freewheeling adventures continue.

Rockwell’s grandfather was the Russian animator Alexandre Alexeieff, who invented the pinscreen. Since his Sundance-winning In the Soup (1992), the filmmaker has demonstrated an extraordinary grasp of historic cinematic tricks, a knowledge that bleeds into Sweet Thing’s Little Rascals-style keyhole fades and Lasse Tolbøll’s lively, 16mm monochrome cinematography.

In the Soup, a wonderful two-step starring Steve Buscemi as a struggling screenwriter who foolishly accepts funding from Seymour Cassel’s gangster to film his 500-page opus, was recently restored through a Kickstarter campaign. Can we all chip in to get more films from Rockwell and Allison Anders?

Streaming from September 10th