Indie filmmaker Alexandre Rockwell debuted his new feature Sweet Thing at the Berlin Film Festival this week.
Rockwell’s kids Lana and Nico did stellar jobs are portraying the film’s two main characters Billy (Lana) and Nico (Nico) two siblings trying to cope with their split family—their struggling alcoholic father Adam (Will Patton, Remember the Titans and Falling Skies), and their absent, neglectful mother Eve (Karyn Parsons, best known as “Hilary” from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, who is also Rockwell’s wife and mother of Lana and Nico). After a troubling experience with their mother’s new boyfriend, Billy and Nico run away with “outlaw” orphan Malik (Jabari Watkins). Though running away takes them on a poetic adventure, tragedy brings them back home.
Sweet Thing is shot in a slightly grainy greyscale. I’m not a huge fan of modern films shot black-and-white; that auteur aesthetic can sometimes feel a bit contrived. But as the film unfolded, Sweet Things’ grayness became more and more appropriate, juxtaposing well with its plot, tone, and subtext of nostalgia.
The family’s life was grey—the rugged wallpaper in their cluttered home, spaghetti with hotdogs for dinner, thrift store shopping, the kids skipping school to collect cans for money, wrapping Christmas presents in aluminum foil; the father doing low-wage seasonal work dressing as Santa and in a panda costume for a store’s sale. The only times we see color is when Billy daydreams about cherished memories with her mother, family and Billie Holiday, the famous singer she was named after.
Rockwell’s direction was well-executed. Dialogue felt natural and the way the film was intimately shot immersed you into a kind “home movie” of the children’s world. Sweet Thing was also filled with symbolism. Billy, who sings for her brother and Malik, was named after Billy Holiday. Adam forces Billy to cut her hair because it reminds him of her mother (though ironically, her mother covers her natural hair with a wig, ostensibly to conform to preferences of her boyfriend). Billy yearns for the time the family was together. Even the subtle, but central conflict of the film—the parent’s break-up—had symbolic elements as well.
The parents’ names allude to the Biblical first couple, and the audience is asked to consider who sparked the fall of this family—passing their “original sin” to the kids. Was it Adam, the sad father stressed from trying to support his family with precarious jobs, lamenting his wife who left, and projecting his pain on to his kids? Or was it Eve, leaving an alcoholic husband for a partner, for whom she overlooks his abusive nature and castigates her kids for potentially “ruining” the “good life” she now has? Like all families, the truth is a mess with no satisfying answer.
The film is about the search for family, but I think one of the deeper themes it wrestles with is the burden of memory. As the characters latch on to good memories undergirded with soul-stirring acoustic music like Billy covering Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing,” we the audience are moved by the children’s adventure. We think about how fun and liberating it would have been to run away when we were young—to be free from the burdens of home life, and dive headfirst in the innocence of adolescence.
But the nostalgia distracts us rom the realization that at some point, the storybook journey has to end. And if Billy, Nico and Malik haven’t found home before it does, adventure will be replaced with deeper struggle. Sweet Thing shows us that safety and security can be the dull black-and-white we can take for granted in our search for the colorful exhilaration of freedom.
Sweet Thing conveys a paradox about nostalgia—when the rain of life’s struggles pours down on us, the warm feelings of greener grass may give temporary relief, but it also can keep us stuck in the mud. Yale professor John Durham Peters defines nostalgia as “the jealousy the present has for the past.” The sad truth is we have good memories but we aren’t them—we are who we are at this moment, right now. And in some ways, our experience of the present is a kind of “stuck”—we can be mentally anywhere and anytime, but can only be physically here. We sometimes want to go backward, but we can only go forward.
Adam drinks because he is stuck in the past. Eve drinks because she wants to forget the present. For Billy and Nico’s to live the loving, secure and free childhood they deserve, their parents need relinquish the past pain. All of the kids want what the sweet thing they used to have—a family, together. Though at times tragic, the film was a bittersweet adventure and a genuinely intimate family drama.