Alexandre Rockwell uses artful cinematographic and storytelling techniques to craft intimate films that explore flawed characters. Sweet Thing, the writer-director’s first feature film in seven years, follows the lives of two children caught up in the dramas of an unstable parents, poverty, neglect and abuse.

The film centers on two preteen siblings, the older Billie and her younger brother Nico, played by Rockwell’s real-life children Lana and Nico Rockwell, in the derelict apartment they share with their alcoholic and emotionally unstable father Adam (Will Patton). Shot mostly in black and white, the film opens with operatic music and the nostalgic air of the classics. The director’s inventive and unexpected style is evident from these opening scenes, with dramatic close-ups, long shots as children play around their neglected neighborhood, classic iris shots that transition between scenes by tightening the camera view into a small circle. These children live in ramshackle surroundings with no supervision, but still have childlike senses of wonder and discovery. Santa Claus costumes, superhero masks, fireworks and costumes adorn a world that is also industrial, broken down and cramped.

Patton absolutely excels here as a man devastated by his failures as a husband and father. His good heart is buried under drunken ravings and unpredictable, even dangerous behavior. Patton convincingly captures his character’s longstanding dysfunction, his genuine desire to be a good father, his struggle to not self-destruct — the actor recently did similarly great work balancing pathos and psychological instability in Minari.

The children eventually have to leave their father’s home when he enters rehab and they go live with their neglectful mother Eve, played by the young actors’ real-life mother and Rockwell’s wife, Karyn Parsons. Parsons, of past “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” fame, is absolutely believable as a dismissive, hardened mother who has emotionally shut out her children and is trying to salvage support wherever she can, even from her abusive boyfriend, Beaux (M.L. Josepher), who soon turns his abusive attention to her children.

Rockwell fills his film with charming and captivating experimental choices, from the use of black and white punctuated with sudden bursts of softly haloed, pastel-colored scenes, to the use of sometimes operatic, sometimes jangly, sometimes acoustic music to transport us along certain emotional waves. Sometimes we are carried into fantastical sequences where Billie Holiday talks to the character Billie, acting as her imaginary friend and a symbol of her mental escape. In one scene, children’s playful dialogue manifests literally on the screen as bursts of colorful text. Rockwell makes bold choices, sometimes letting scenes hold sudden bursts of aggression, then carrying us off into playful montages, contrasting trauma with the imaginative coping mechanisms children use to survive. We move from the harsh realities of adulthood to the discovery and (waning) innocence of children navigating this world. Sweet Thing seems to occupy the same universe as other films depicting whimsical yet traumatic childhoods, like The Florida Project, Animals and Honey Boy.

The standout performance in the film is Lana Rockwell. We are often close to her perspective, the camera lingering on her face and reactions. She is brilliant, a young actor able to convey the depth and soulfulness of a child having to act as the adult of her family, who yearns and hopes for more. Her real-life brother Nico Rockwell is also talented here.

The film holds our interest even as its plot meanders and takes sudden twists and turns. However, it often ends up being a series of sometimes compelling, sometimes pleasant scenes that don’t fully cohere into a coordinated vision. Despite stylistic surprises, convincing performances, and a plot is not overly complicated, the overall tone sometimes shifts too suddenly, losing the tension and drive of the children’s journey. The choices in soundtrack, switching into color and use of montage/voiceover sometimes serve to create a more fragmented, rather than coherent, film.

Ultimately though, Sweet Thing overcomes its flaws to craft believable and touching portraits of young children and broken adults struggling to survive, find hope and discover themselves. Rockwell captures a child’s particular perspective, and this is another worthy addition to the long list of films honoring difficult childhoods.

Summary
Overcomes its flaws to craft believable and touching portraits of young children and broken adults struggling to survive, find hope and discover themselves.
70 %
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