Cast & Crew
A young woman's life is torn apart by the sudden intrusion of her mentally disturbed sister.
John Even Hughes
Campion has gone on to be an intensely mercurial voice, gaining global props by way of rather abstruse but torrential period melodramas (1993's The Piano and 1996's The Portrait of a Lady), then going screwy with incendiary gender-combat semi-satires like Holy Smoke (1999) and In the Cut (2003), and then returning to costume drama for perhaps her most fully realized film, the breathtaking (and unjustly neglected) Bright Star (2009). You never know where she'll head next, but you do know it'll be Campionesque, anthemic and wildly neurotic and swept into an estrogenic whirlwind.
Sweetie is this sensibility in molten form - it's a surreal family satire conceived and executed as though it's a nasty dream you're having after pigging out all night on Twizzlers, moonshine and mescaline. The whole movie feels as though it's on the autism spectrum. We begin with Kay (Karen Colston), a dowdy mega-nerdess with a phobic dread of trees and a catatonic social affect that just screams of a horrific upbringing and family life. But her parents - hilarious, helpless sub-bourgeois Aussie caricatures Flo (Dorothy Barry ) and Gordon (Jon Darling) - are self-delusional codependent idiots, but hardly malevolent. The real problem lurking behind the textural and behavioral weirdness is Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon), who returns home just as Kay finally snags (and immediately loathes) a boyfriend (choosing him for his mole and curly lock of hair, after a fortune teller warns her to keep an eye out for a boy with a question-mark on his forehead). Appearing with a doper boyfriend, Sweetie is the family's crucible, a shrill, preening, obese sociopath-cum-would-be-actress stuck in her spoiled, show-off preadolescence, and committed to inter-sibling combat as if she and Kay were still battling over toys and their parents' affections. Clearly, Sweetie always won every fight, always successfully manipulated the parents, and was never satisfied, and so the true if semi-hidden trajectory of the film is the dawning awareness we get of a sisterly relationship that bordered on the hellish and twisted both women on the insides for good.
The delivery system for this wrenching dynamic is Aussie-stylized through the ceiling. Campion and cinematographer Sally Bongers have crafted an unforgettable visual assault, limning the shanty-suburbia of southeastern Australia in outrageous puppet-show tableaux, cheesy pastel colors, arch proto-punk posturing, cartoon-impossible compositions, bird's-eye-view perspectives, lens-distorted grotesqueries, animated interpolations, absurdist locations, deliberately disturbing fragmentations, and so on, all jumbled in an editing mix that defies categorization. In fact, the sheer welter of imagistic unpredictability serves to both comment on the action - painting these fringe-dwellers as ludicrous provincials - and give us distance from the intense and often unrelenting psychodramatic firefighting that ensues once Sweetie's pathological impulses are truly uncorked.
It's an authentically bruising film about a dysfunctional family that finds a visual and narrative vocabulary that never relies upon sheer Eugene O'Neill-Tennessee Williams verbosity, as so many films of the same species do. The wild style of Sweetie can also be carbon-dated to its day and age - these were the years of punk, post-punk, New Wave, No Wave and indie-everything, a broad cultural paradigm marked visually by tastelessness, bold colors, crass angularism, dimestore expressionist design, compressed theatrical images, campy voguing, tonal apathy, cellar-nightclub lighting, and so on, and it's a palette that Campion knowingly exploits, even as she converts it into something much less postured and far more psychological. As the years have pressed on, so many of that period's fashionably hip signature films from all over, from 1982's punk indieLiquid Sky to Luc Besson's Subway (1985), Alan Rudolph's Trouble in Mind (1985), Tim Burton's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), Julien Temple's Earth Girls Are Easy (1988), and even Pedro Almodovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), have dated and paled in the memory. Sweetie, if anything, has grown stranger, and more painfully acute in its observations.
Campion (she indeed has a competitive sister, Anna, who made one lame film, Loaded, in 1994, cowrote the rather harebrained Holy Smoke, and then more or less disappeared) was at once and remains one of our reliably feminist filmmakers, and Sweetie is still one of the best movies to pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors. (The Bechdel Test originated in a gay comic strip written by artist Allison Bechdel back in the '80s; to get a passing grade, a film's story must include at least one scene in which at least two named female characters talk to each other, and talk about something other than men. Needless to say, 99% of English-language films fail, badly.) In that alone, it's so distinctive it almost feels like a movie from another world, where men and their ideas of power don't run everything.
By Michael Atkinson
Sweetie - Australian Filmmaker Jane Campion's Theatrical Film Debut - SWEETIE on DVD
Synopsis: Glum working girl Kay (Karen Colston) steals another girl's fiancé to fulfill a superstitious 'destiny.' She and Louis (Tom Lycos) cohabit successfully even though they're only intermittently attracted to each other. Kay's disturbed sister Dawn, known as "Sweetie" (Geneviève Lemon) suddenly arrives and rudely takes up residence with her boyfriend "manager" Bob (Andre Pataczek). Unstable, over-emotional and unpredictably destructive, Sweetie drives Kay crazy. The girls' estranged parents Gordon and Flo (Jon Darling and Dorothy Barry) hope that Sweetie will settle down at Kay's; Gordon visits and finds the household in a mess. Sweetie ends up abandoned at Kay's place while the others venture to the outback to visit Flo, who has become a cook for a group of cowboys called Jackaroos. When they return Sweetie is as difficult to handle as ever.
Sweetie is definitely original and many audiences have also found it to be hilarious. Jane Campion's intense examination of a mostly disenchanted group of individuals is often funny, yet is really a dreary little tragedy. Kay is a borderline melancholic stumbling along in a rudderless life. She's almost mystic about her private world of superstition. Normally withdrawn on the job, she suddenly makes a play for a workmate's boyfriend for the solitary reason that a fortune teller predicted that her destined mate will have a lock of hair on his forehead in the shape of a question mark. Otherwise Kay seems to be in short supply of reasons to live and breath, until the unwelcome Sweetie crashes into her life and simply leaves her no time to become depressed.
Campion films all of this in a detached series of mostly static scenes with dozens of eccentric compositions stressing dislocation and bleak disorder. Kay's head is jammed into the corner of shots for close-ups, and ragged views of asphalted driveways and trash-strewn rooms express the essential joylessness of much of her existence. Sweetie communicates the morbid vibe of graphic novels about the depressed lower middle class, a Despair Comix feel. It also offers some strange symbolism via a freshly planted sapling that Kay secretly uproots and hides under her bed. Although her actions are given a narrative excuse, we can't help but detect an authorial attempt to make a statement on "the denial of life" or "a rejection of fertility." At least it's subtle. Sweetie is refreshingly free of groaningly meaningful symbols, like a grand piano that stays in tune even after a week's abandonment in the ocean surf.
Geneviève Lemon's Sweetie is a simply terrific character, an unmanageable disaster that anchors the film in the real world of tangled relationships and responsibilities. Sweetie is an overweight and coarse young woman on medications for manic depression. She lives in a Baby Jane-like fantasy outgrowth of an angelic infancy as Daddy's wonder child; we're given flashback images of her posed in perfect pink dresses. Now an unsightly mess of punk clothing and ratted hairdo, Sweetie leaps up every morning with her narcoleptic manager and cheerfully chants, "This is the day it happens for us!" even though their fabulous career in the performing arts hasn't yet reached delusion status. They instead leech off of Kay, eating her food and wrecking her house; Sweetie even tries to seduce the unflappable Louis. Kay openly dislikes her sister and constantly urges her to 'move on,' but Sweetie becomes destructive at the slightest suggestion contrary to her wishes. She screws up her face and maintains her denial by lashing out and using emotional blackmail. Feeling unloved, Sweetie chews up Kay's treasured set of porcelain horse figurines and bleeds profusely from the mouth. She's destroyed Kay's most cherished possession but has succeeded in reclaiming the center of attention.
Incest was a theme in the earlier Campion student films and is linked to the source of Sweetie's disturbance. Sweetie's elderly father can't break away from his vision of his adorable baby. He makes no effort to stop Sweetie when she bathes him inappropriately, an event observed by Kay. Even more disturbingly, the clearly dangerous Sweetie is left alone to play with a neighbor's child. Kay has long since abandoned any notion of being in control.
Sweetie's view of mental illness in the family situation is too honest to be sordid. Kay and her parents lack the emotional resources to deal with Sweetie's offensive behavior, and simply do their best to endure it. It's a vast improvement over films that romanticize mentally handicapped people by presenting them as cute or eccentrically gifted exceptions to the laws of reality: Rain Man, Benny & Joon, Untamed Heart.
Campion and co-writer Gerard Lee rely on familiar plot diversions to give the story a structure. Kay and Gordon ditch Sweetie to go on a road trip to recover Mother, providing a tonal break and a bit of narrative sanity. Louis eventually leaves Kay as she becomes more withdrawn. With mother and father reunited, Sweetie moves back home and soon goes off the deep end to provide a memorably demented ending. She strips naked, covers herself in dirt, climbs into her old tree house and refuses to come down.
Jane Campion's offbeat tale again retreats behind conventional devices. Sweetie resembles nothing less than a movie monster out of control, and we can sense that the show is converging on a violent finish. What saves the picture is not Campion's 'easy out' resolution of the Sweetie problem, but the frequent visual hints that Kay might discover her own personal 'cure,' if her life would just settle down. This young woman who uproots plants and then feels guilty about it may yet find the courage to personally blossom. All she needs is a sane place to put down a root or two of her own. It's a cruel observation -- Kay cannot thrive until her mad 'twin' is gone from her life -- but it has the ring of truth.
Criterion's DVD of Sweetie presents the Australian comedy-drama in a sparkling enhanced transfer supervised by the film's director of photography Sally Bongers. Producer Kim Hendrickson has worked closely with the director on the extras. Actresses Geneviève Lemon and Karen Colston reunite to discuss the experience of filming the movie, and a 1989 interview piece has critic Peter Thompson questioning Ms. Campion about her student work.
The disc offers three of Campion's excellent short films. An Exercise in Discipline: Peel is a color examination of a roadside family quarrel. Passionless Moments is an absurdist exercise that isolates meaningless events as defining moments in people's lives. A Girl's Own Story is a strange and disturbing tale of schoolgirl fantasies that ends in incest and misery. Trailers and still galleries are included as well.
For more information about Sweetie, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Sweetie, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Sweetie - Australian Filmmaker Jane Campion's Theatrical Film Debut - SWEETIE on DVD
Winner of the Australian Critics Award for Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress.
Winner of the Georges Sadoul Prize in 1989 for Best Foreign Film.
Released in United States 1989
Released in United States 1999
Released in United States August 1989
Released in United States February 14, 1990
Released in United States January 1990
Released in United States November 1989
Released in United States October 13, 1989
Released in United States October 1989
Released in United States September 1989
Released in United States Winter January 19, 1990
Shown at Boston Film Festival September 14-21, 1989.
Shown at Edinburgh International Film Festival August 12-27, 1989.
Shown at Hawaii International Film Festival November 26- December 2, 1989.
Shown at London Film Festival November 10-26, 1989.
Shown at Montreal World Film Festival (Cinema of Today and Tomorrow) August 24 - September 4, 1989.
Shown at New York Film Festival October 6 & 8, 1989.
Shown at Toronto Festival of Festivals September 8-17, 1989.
Shown at United States Film Festival Park City, Utah January 20-28, 1990.
Shown at Vancouver International Film Festival October 13, 1989.
Feature directorial debut for filmmaker Jane Campion.
Filmmaker Jane Campion received the 1990 New Generation Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
Began shooting September 1988.
"The Feminine Eye" program celebrates New York Women in Film & Television's 20th anniversary.
Released in United States 1989 (Shown at Hawaii International Film Festival November 26- December 2, 1989.)
Released in United States 1989 (Shown at Montreal World Film Festival (Cinema of Today and Tomorrow) August 24 - September 4, 1989.)
Released in United States 1999 (Shown in New York City (BAM Rose Cinema) as part of program "The Feminine Eye: Twenty Years of Women's Cinema" January 28 - February 7, 1999.)
Released in United States January 1990 (Shown at United States Film Festival Park City, Utah January 20-28, 1990.)
Released in United States Winter January 19, 1990
Released in United States August 1989 (Shown at Edinburgh International Film Festival August 12-27, 1989.)
Released in United States September 1989 (Shown at Boston Film Festival September 14-21, 1989.)
Released in United States September 1989 (Shown at Toronto Festival of Festivals September 8-17, 1989.)
Released in United States October 1989 (Shown at New York Film Festival October 6 & 8, 1989.)
Released in United States February 14, 1990 (Los Angeles)
Released in United States November 1989 (Shown at London Film Festival November 10-26, 1989.)
Released in United States October 13, 1989 (Shown at Vancouver International Film Festival October 13, 1989.)