2020 Film Reviews

Berlinale 2020 Review: Alexandre Rockwell’s ‘Sweet Thing’

Sweet Thing 2020 Movie - Film Review

As with Alexandre Rockwell’s 2013 film Little Feet, his latest feature, Sweet Thing, is a family affair. Starring wife Karyn Parsons and the couple’s two children, Nico and Lana Rockwell, this defiantly indie film attempts to capture a child’s eye view of poverty. With a small crew made up of Rockwell’s students from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Sweet Thing is a melange of meaning and stylistic impulses that has plenty of fun with its vibrant and gently poetic style, but doesn’t land any of its more serious points. 

Eleven-year-old Nico and 15-year-old Billie (named for Billie Holliday, who appears in fantasy sequences like Humphrey Bogart in Play it Again Sam or Eric Cantona in Looking for Eric) open the film playing in a junkyard like Killer of Sheep. It’s Christmas Eve in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and as the siblings go home to a nice but cripplingly drunk father, Adam (Will Patton), it’s clear that there won’t be many presents under the tree. There won’t even be a tree. This first section plays out much like filmed theatre, with several long closeups and John Cassavetes-lite play-acting.

Sweet Thing Movie Film

Rockwell stops proceedings from feeling too dour by interrupting the festivities with quirky side characters, like a girl from school who chases Nico around and insists that she’s his girlfriend for life). In addition, montages which flick between black and white and colour — filled with dancing and food — locate Sweet Thing in this magical realist dreamscape: childhood as memory, poverty as irrelevant. This chapter culminates in the bafflingly histrionic, with Billie having her hair chopped off by her blackout father. It’s a choice that doesn’t seem to come from anywhere, with the only motivation seemingly being “well, he’s a drunk, and that’s what they do” — a reductively simplistic evaluation of the issue. The film’s subjective teenage perspective may explain this, but Rockwell does little to suggest a life outside of what happens directly onscreen. 

In the most discomforting part of Sweet Thing, the kids are sent to stay with their abusive Mom Eve (Parsons) and step-dad Beaux (M.L. Josepher) while Adam is in rehab. The stripper/pimp dynamic takes lurches into abuse which are rendered with an amateurishness that comes across as inauthentic. Beaux, who dresses and acts like an 80s wrestler, is cartoonishly domineering and machiavellian in his scheming to control all of the family. The most convincing scene comes when Billie tries to tell Eve what’s happening, only to be aggressively put down by her mom, clearly desperate to keep a hold of the “good thing” she has going on. In this scene, Rockwell displays how generational abuse can be born out of desperate necessity to keep going, and to make something of yourself. 

Sweet Thing Movie Film

Even this psychodrama is just one sojourn that the film takes — soon, the kids are on the lamb, accompanied by another charming teenager in the form of Jabari Watkins. At last free of authoritarian grown-ups, the kids retreat fully into the kind of neverland depicted in Behn Zeitlin’s mawkish Beasts of the Southern Wild. Watkins is a cute screen presence, but one that turns up too late in the film to make an impact. These thematically disjointed twists and turns crystalise the “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” attitude of the whole film. But each aesthetic choice is loaded with political associations that Rockwell doesn’t stop to consider. The music re-appropriates Badlands (during the on-the-run sequence), and actually has the stones to use Brian Eno’s “An Ending” (definitively used in Traffic) at a tragically violent emotional climax. The characters’ black identity lingers around the frame without comment before making a troubling association with Trayvon Martin, which is then undercut by a happy-go-lucky epilogue designed for maximum fun. 

This lack of efficacy extends to the use of black and white 16mm film. The modern world doesn’t look like grainy 16mm, so — in shooting dilapidated houses and homeless men drinking bottles of whiskey — Sweet Thing signals to New Hollywood for no real reason. The story of a poverty stricken family is up to the minute, essential in 2020 America. And yet Rockwell looks to the past, papering over the cracks in scenes that are clearly shot on an iPhone and then processed to look like film. It is so blasé as to use poverty as an aesthetic choice as much as film stock. 

Sweet Thing Movie Film

The entire mode of production, being essentially a glorified student film, does mean that there is a certain amount of filmmaking freedom which is admirable, and possibly only found in productions like this which don’t have ambitions much further than the festival sphere. Sweet Thing is creatively shot and bursting with energy, but Rockwell’s biggest ambition is seemingly to replicate a bunch of ideas from other films, to put visuals to his favourite songs and to showcase his talented family. This does have a certain charm, and it’s hard to imagine many other families have home videos that look like this, but that youthful vigour doesn’t make up for such an ill-nuanced and naive look at American race and poverty.

Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.

5 replies »

  1. Hello Mr. Flanagan, it’s early in the AM in NY in the time of Corona and with some time on my hands I decided to scan reactions to my film Sweet Thing and came across your review. Ordinarily I would take a my licking and further kick myself for reading a negative review but in this case I have decided to respond. I do so because you have so misunderstood my intention and the over all expression of the film I felt it it necessary for your readers and perhaps yourself to hear directly from the creator in response to your critique. At first the impulse is to defend and counter attack what at first look was taken personally. I will do my best to not try and justify or act defensively over what I truly think is a lack of understanding. Who knows maybe you would either reconsider or at the very least have a better idea of what the writer director was after.
    Let me start by saying that I agree that poverty and the horrid abuse these kids suffer is a very serious matter. Many of these events were drawn from my personal experiences. Having grown up in an alcoholic and divided home shaped me and my sisters forever. Looking back on some of these tough times I remember the love and games me and my siblings created in order to combat the abuse of our daily lives and it is those memories that I will carry to my grave. I wanted to pay tribute to the resilience children who grow up in these kind of tough times display . The loyalty and the absolute inventiveness is in full display in Sweet Thing and that is what I intended. My father, god bless his soul, was a flawed man but we loved him to death. My mother and the abusive men she attached herself to were a horror show we had to navigate together and we could not have done so without each other. I wanted to show the strength my sisters showed in the face of this horror. The abuse did not wipe us out and in fact may well be partly responsible for my becoming a filmmaker as an act of survival. Many children who grew up with these kinds of challenges agree with me. I am most proud when people who have suffered in similar ways find some solace and healing when watching Sweet Thing.
    As for the issue and gravity of poverty itself I would respond by saying that I grew up at times with means and living with my father we were far from poor but when I moved into a studio apartment with my mother we were without material and the comforts we have grown so accustom to in the modern world. I can honestly say we always had enough food to eat but we had little choice and had to make due with instant noodle soup on many occasions. We never considered ourselves poor as the children in Sweet Thing don’t. Birthdays and Christmases were always a bit of a bitter sweet time as some times we had to make due with newspaper clippings of gifts instead of the actual things. This was always a kind of exciting game we would play and looking back was better than the real material gift we may have received and lost anyway. This story as well as many others found their way into the film. For an artist to reflect on what you might call poverty this way is in a way a nostalgic but the hint from you is that it is irresponsible. I would disagree. Charlie Chaplin and many other artists have refused to submit to the political correctness of feeling the need to directly address the issues that surround poverty but instead choose to portray the determination, joy, inventiveness and humanity in the daily life people who suffer from these kinds of inequities . You may disagree with me on this and I am ok with that . To each his own and I am fine with that. Please make no mistake that I chose to portray the children’s world in this way. If you grew up in poverty you may feel differently and I am sorry if I offended you.
    Moving on to what what you call a “Throw every thing against the wall and see what sticks ” film technique, I whole heartedly disagree. The choice of Black and White was deliberate and yes it was in a way an homage to films from another time. It was intentional on my part to have the world be removed in a way from the confines of a modernity. I felt rightly or wrongly that the use of film grain and 16mm stock would give it a less ‘real feeling and be more dream like. And NO an iPhone was not used. I am sorry but that is an insult that I must defend against. The images are absolutely 100% genuine celluloid and we did this at great sacrifice . It was an important choice that I am paying dearly for so please understand my taking offense to the slight. The Camera man and I fought hard to shoot Sweet Thing with an eye to find the beauty in an otherwise dull world and I think we did that with results I am most proud of. I am influenced by all things I have experienced as we all are. I was born in art house movie theaters . Quite frankly they saved my life. And as Truffaut (400 Blows) was influenced by Vigo (Zero for Conduct) Sweet Thing was influenced by 400 Blows. The key here is that we are a sum total of influences and mine range from the little Rascals, the Three Stooges to Cassavetes and Tarkovsky. So I refuse to steal any shot or sequence from any other artist and if you can point out where I have done so then please be specific.
    As for the choice of music. I am also very proud of this. The use of what you call the Bad Lands theme was a good one I think and if it is owned by that film then I think Carl Orf would be saddened . I use it quite differently, but a cineaste such as myself (and you) will probably see the connection. Thank god not everyone who sees films are as cleaver and worldly as we are. Also for the use of the Brian Eno composition ‘Ascending’ that song was not made for the film ‘Traffic’. I was unaware of that it was used for that film. I know it was composed for a documentary called ‘Apollo’ but was also unaware at the time I chose it. I chose it because I had lost a song and I was watching the film with a composer I could not afford and he suggested it. It worked perfectly for the moment and I am grateful.
    Lastly, you mention ‘race’ in how I touch on it without really mining the depth of such serious contemporary context. Race relations and the scars of the racist system we live in are not taken lightly by me and should not be by anyone. My family is bi racial and a day does not go by we do not discuss the political and social impact of race in our society. That said, myself, the crew and family all unanimously decided this film would not be about ‘race’ but rather reflect our own personal lives and how people of color do not have to represent anything other than themselves in any particular film. Many of my students of color appreciate that very fact and I will say we were all very conscious of our portrayal of multi dimensional mixed race people in society that are not limited or there humanity defined by their race. Make no mistake we all know that ‘Race’ in a Racists society is omnipresent. Of course they are not color blind and we are by no means a post racist society but in this small world of Sweet Thing there are other things at play and the actors and I decided to focus on those things rather than make political statements. That said the issues of prejudice and race do from time to time rear their ugly heads in the film but are their only as subtext.
    Your mention ‘Trevon Martin’ in your critique of the moment young Jabari is shot. These two events owe nothing to each other. I am afraid that this is the second point you make that I find offensive. Trevon was a young man who was stalked and attacked by a racist in a state that allows someone to shoot to kill on suspicion of a threat. There were no police involved he was unarmed. It was a profound tragedy and for his memory we all should remember what happened and do all we can do to make sure it does not happen again. What happens to Jabari could not be more different and I ask you to reflect on that. The only thing they have in common is that they are young black men who were shot. I refused to allow Jabari to die and that was the final resistance to the darkness of racial profiling. I chose not to have the children be defeated and to allow for hope and regeneration through love and loyalty be the final words in Sweet Thing. It was an act of defiance and care not a ‘slap dash’ tagged on happy ending.
    I hope you find a moment to read this and that others who read your ‘review’ will as well and will give Sweet Thing a chance and who knows, maybe they will see some magic and joy in it, that would give me much happiness and I would feel I have done my job.

    Thank you,

    Alexandre Rockwell

  2. Mr. Flanagan,

    these are strange times to be sure and since my film Sweet Thing has been placed on hold as many things have been I have found the time to come upon this review and was affected by it and wanted to respond. Probably an ill advised notion but if you or perhaps an innocent reader might stumble upon it and read my response it might be interesting and give another insight into the making and the author’s intentions.

    The challenge is to not be defensive and you are certainly intitieled to your opinion but you unfortunately got a few things either wrong or over looked some important things I think others may have not missed. The film did in fact win the Crystal Bear at Berlin and most other responses to the film have been quite positive thank goodness. I say this because making a film like this takes a tremendous sacrifice and is a giant act of risk and faith that has no guaranteed outcome. I am really happy that our hard work and intentions were appreciated by many and that is all I can ask. You unfortunately did not either see or value many of the films intentional qualities that I am so proud of.

    The first thing that struck me was your belittling some of the tougher parts of the film that have to do with alcohol and abuse. I had a choice to make here. My siblings and I grew up around abuse and having parents who suffered through bouts of alcoholic disease. My childhood was a bit of a war zone never knowing what each day might hold considering my parents were in and out of rehab and or sleeping under the oil burner in the basement. I was beaten and sent to the emergency room by an abusive step parent and I spent most of my time day dreaming or ‘space out’ as my teachers and most other adults would say. My joys were in the games and inventions I made up or other children around me would engage me in. I bring up my personal life not in order to validate any experience but rather illustrate a choice I made. The moments I felt most alive is with my sisters and when we would run away from the negative and scary adult world. These imaginings and adventures were my salvation and have lead me to what I do today and I chose to pay homage to them. I have found that many people who suffer abuse as kids often are drawn to poetry and humor as relief and exultation. Many people who have seen Sweet Thing who dealt with similar challenges as children have reached out to me to thank me for bring to light and sharing this story. The acts of love and poetry that children in dire environments cling to in defiance of the hell they are living through have transformative power. If anything Sweet Thing is a celebration of the resilience of these children and all children who face abuse and poverty. There are most certainly hard moments in the film that you site as either glib, clownish, inauthentic and amateurish. I am sorry but this is insulting and I will defend myself again this accusation. Will Patton (whose remarkable performance you hardly mention) cuts his daughter hair not in some random act but rather as a way of preserving her childhood. Yes, he is drunk off his ass and the illogic of his brutal act is provoked by his own pain and loss of his wife but he has a very clear intention here as do I. He is cutting his daughters hair in order to keep her safe and protect her innocents. This did in fact happen to one of my sisters. I loved my father deeply but he was a wounded and sad man who never managed to deal with his own loss and his futile attempts to save his children from the pain he suffered more often caused more pain than not. The moments of drunken anger always drew me and my sisters closer and I can recall so many times we would huddle and share stories at night while the adults around us acted out their drunken rampages in the dark corners of our house. Still, I chose to make a film about survival and love rather than to focus on the sickness and hell it brings with it. A tourist may approve of a more dark and ‘realistic’ idea of childhood set in poverty and abuse but it is not mine. I have nothing against a well told story of hellish abuse but that is not my voice or focus of Sweet Thing.
    As for the belittling or slight portrayal of poverty in the film I can only tell you that when I was a kid I always had enough to eat but I lived in a studio apartment with my mother and come Christmas time we did not always get gifts. We made a ritual of sharing clippings of things we all thought we would like and I managed to find a place for this in the film. This is the kind of invention in the face of want I was looking for. I love this scene and it bring me back to some of the more joyous memories I shared with my family. Unfortunately I wish there had been more. I don’t see this family as poor. They are without a lot of things but money is not what they lack. It is hard in these present times to see people who live like that as not poor but for me and others I know who grew up without all the gadgets and toys our modern lives seem to require we found riches in other areas. Yes, this movie is nostalgic and I am ok with that. It is after all a desire on my part to imagine something beautiful and honest .
    Many other great authors have also chosen to illustrate difficult childhoods in similar fashion. Perhaps that is why you seem to feel my film is derivative from other works. I drew my inspiration from the Little Rascals, Charlie Chaplin, John Cassavetes,Jean Vigo, Truffaut and yes Charles Burnett but I see this as influence and an artistic dialogue from one author to another. I am a sum total of my disparate influences and am proud that you may have seen moments that reminded you of other wonderful films. I am honored by that and humbled. I would however challenge you to provide and example of one moment where I stole’s a line of dialogue or a shot that was direct rip off of another film. (BTW there is one).

    On to what you choose to call my “Throw everything against the wall and see what sticks” style. Ok, again I take offense. The choice of super 16mm Black and white film stock(Shot with and Aaton) was a very intentional choice. It helped me take the film out of time. I did not want to temporize this film. It is not a realistic rendering of a harsh world but rather a raw imagining of a fairytale seen from a child’s eyes. I love the medium of film and everything from color sequences to the use of the Iris are a reflection of that love. I draw from as many sources as I can but make no mistake there is nothing random or unplanned in the shooting of the film. The young man who shot it Lasse Toball did a remarkable job and the energy and intimacy in very shot is well executed. Also, I do not know where you came up with the idea that much of the film was shot on an iPhone? How could you possibly think that? We shot on super 16mm celluloid at great sacrifice and cost to us all. I am still limping from that choice but I believe it was the right one in order to achieve the look we were after.
    As for the choice in music. you imply that I somehow lifted sound tracks from other films to my discredit? I think the music is really wonderful and quite eclectic no? You choose to identify two pieces of music and over look the other 30 some cues to make your point. The first is the well known classic piece “Street Song” by Carl Orf that was also used in many movies among them True Romance and Badlands. Two Movies that Sweet Thing could not be more different from. But still I could see the fact the kids run away as a thematic parallel to Badlands. So be it, I am ok with that and don’t see how that would affect anyone other than a clever cineast like yourself and or myself’s enjoyment of the film. As for the Eno Song The Assent, it is originally from a documentary called Apollo not the film Traffic you mention. I was unaware it was used in Traffic and was turned on to it by Nick Cave who said it was one of his favorite pieces of Brian’s. BTW I am really grateful that Mr. Eno agreed and allowed me to use it in the film. He along with Mr. Van Morrison, Jonsi, Agnes Obel, the Billy Holliday estate all liked the use of their music in Sweet Thing so much they gave it to us for pennies. I think that is a good measure of the appropriate use of the music choices.
    I am also a bit stunned by the lack of appreciation for the acting in the film. You make it seem like a glorified home movie. I would defy you to actually stage a home movie and make it look real but really come on, Will Patton’s performance is of ‘home movie quality? That’s like saying a cassettes film is like a glorified home movie. Seriously this is hard to address other than to say look again and ask yourself if you really believe this dismissive assessment of the acting. My Children are so good in their rolls and so much was asked of them. It was huge risk to put them in a movie and my wife and I agonized over it for days but the risk payed off. I would beg your readers to watch the film and not be completely taken by Lana’s portray of the young Billy and her handling of some very tough moments with grace and understated soul. To say nothing of her remarkable voice. but I am her dad so perhaps I am crazy and if it were not for the overwhelming ovations she received in Berlin I might think I was jaded. So any other actors and non actors bring such a strong authenticity to their rolls I can’t address them all but I do have to say my wife Karyn Parsons did a yeoman’s job of playing a very un attractive roll of the negligent mom.

    The last thing I will take issue with here is the identifying the “black identity” of Jabari only at the end of the film. This is really something I am troubled by. I imagine you are a white man and I am not sure to what degree you have to deal with race related issues in you life but my family is mixed race and in the current environment of these united states not a day goes by where we don’t talk about the challenges race related issues. It was a very conscious choice by all the people involved in this film to have these kids to just be kids and that the fact they are either mixed or African American was just a necessary part of the human make up of Sweet Thing. Issues that surrounded Lana’s hair or other themes that might have been brought up were never going to be overtly political. In these times anything will be combed over for a larger meaning concerning race but we just wanted to tell this story with a mixed group of people that shared this children’s journey together. The Black people who worked on this film have said that it was a relief to not have to represent or have to be a symbol for anything but their own human truth. I am very happy about this and would love f more films allowed black actors that freedom as well.
    You mention that the fact Jabari is shot at the end is a reference to Trevon Martin. This is really unfortunate. The circumstances of his Jabari’s fate have nothing to do with Trevon who was un armed, stalked by a vigilante mad man, attacked and shot in a state that allows for someone to be shot on a suspicion of a threat. There were no police there, he did not flee and it was cold blooded murder. The circumstances in Sweet Thing could not be more different. There are plenty of examples of young black men being shot by the police but you dishonor the memory of Travon by gettin this wrong. To be clear Jabari is armed and he is shot by a black cop and he survives. Now you may feel his survival is a cheap trick but I obviously disagree. We all decided that the loyalty and resilience of these kids would win the day over making a tragic and often true political statement. The kids take matters into their own hands and though the seemingly fragile tools they are equip with bring hm back to life. We chose hope and the power of love and redemption to be what we leave you with. It is my hope in all of the above that my aim was true and that those who are given the chance to see Sweet Thing will agree that the love and effort we all put into the making of it were worth it.

    Alexandre Rockwell

  3. I entered a long and detailed response(too much time on my hands) to this very under researched and glib review but it was never posted. Alexandre Rockwell writer /director Sweet Thing.

  4. Hey Mr Rockwell,

    I was interested to read your comments. Thank you for sharing your past experiences and your insight into your process with the film. I actually enjoyed the film and praise it in my review, and don’t presume to know your intentions. All I am responding to are the sounds and images as I interpret them.

    I’m under no misapprehension that my writing can make or break a film, but by putting art out in the world you are asking for a response from the viewer. As such, I can’t help but be critical of the aspects of the film I spoke about in the review. The Eno track may have been written for ‘For All Mankind’, but I would argue that its “definitive” use was in ‘Traffic’. Likewise, your use of Orf is inseparable from ‘Badlands’ in the context you use it. I found the film to be glib regarding the subjects of race and poverty. You may have more nuanced views, but they don’t make it onscreen here.

    I will admit that watching several films a day at a festival is not the most conducive way to give a charitable reading of new work, but it is (or was) how the film industry operates. Clearly that mode works for you, and I congratulate you on the win and your family on receiving standing ovations at the screening. They do give charming performances, as does Will Patton. I’m glad that audiences enjoyed the film, and I do hope that it finds further success on the other side of this crazy time.

    Feel free to email me if you have any other questions.

    Ben

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