MOVIE REVIEW : Family Unsettlingly Under Siege in ‘Sweetie’ From Australia


We haven’t had a movie as profoundly unsettling as “Sweetie” since “Blue Velvet.” David Lynch’s dark metaphor created the same reactions as Jane Campion’s first feature, both of them have been called masterly and disgusting, by turns.

But, although Campion’s vision is no less precise and no less bizarre than Lynch’s, and although both directors deal in manifestations of the unconscious, the comparisons stop there.

Writer-director Campion has her own powerful identity and a far less ominous affect. “Sweetie” (at the Guild in Hillcrest) is warm, intense and wickedly funny, with a faint edge of danger that’s never quite absent, but it has none of Lynch’s psycho-sexual torment. Made with a post-Modernist’s eye and a brilliant satiric ear, “Sweetie” is the announcement of a singular, smashing talent.


Campion’s subject is families, pressure-cookers with no safety valves. She seems to have total recall for details of jealousy and score-keeping, unquestioned love and resentment as she sketches the pulls between two sisters, Sweetie, “Dad’s real girl,” who’s had lifelong, unquestioning love, and her sister Kay, who’s never felt loved at all.

The story is set in one of the bleaker suburbs in Sydney, Australia, as a family is pulled off-center by its most demanding member, the outrageous Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon), a sometimes mental patient and decidedly free spirit.

Sad-faced and repressed, Kay (Karen Colston) is at the center of the story. In her late 20s and fleetingly pretty, she’s Sweetie’s slightly older sister. It’s a relationship that has taken its toll. Any number of things unnerve Kay, especially trees, whose roots--like her family’s--seem profoundly unstable.

Sex is another disquieting subject, but it doesn’t keep Kay from moving in with lightning speed on Louis (Tom Lycos), who seems to fit a psychic’s prediction of the man she’s destined for. The fact that he’s just become engaged is totally irrelevant. Bewildered, vaguely flattered, Louis succumbs and moves in, bag and baggage.

Actually, both sisters are irresistible forces when they set their minds on something. It’s just that Sweetie’s mind has been set so irrevocably, so mistakenly and for so long. She’s been fueled from the cradle by her father’s vision of her as a rare and God-given talent. We never quite know when Sweetie began to take this information onto another plane, when expectation became craziness, but the two are fused now.

Sweetie bursts back into Kay’s life just as Kay and Louis’s 13-month relationship has hit a particularly contemporary snag: They love each other, but at Kay’s request they just don’t make love. Kay’s phobias have had a field day recently, and the bombshell of Sweetie’s midnight arrival doesn’t soothe them.


Sweetie is roughly 60 pounds overweight, add an extra 10 pounds for makeup; the beautiful features of her Kewpie Doll face look as though they’d been inflated with a bicycle pump and her lace mitts probably cover sawed-up wrists. She arrives with Bob (Michael Lake), a drooling druggie she calls her producer and she has stopped her medication. However, success is only inches away. “Bob and I are gonna walk through some doors” she announces triumphantly. As soon as Bob stops nodding off mid-sentence.

What really perturbs Kay is the force of Sweetie’s uninhibited sexuality, the other end of the spectrum from her own. It doesn’t unclench Kay in the slightest.

Sweetie’s fluctuating behavior has very nearly destroyed her parents’ marriage. As we meet her mother, Flo (Dorothy Barry) she’s calmly taken time off to get a breather from Sweetie and from her husband’s sentimental uselessness about her.

Campion may not be sentimental but she’s a nutsy romantic. The Outback sequence, where Flo has taken a job happily cooking for an outpost of Aussie cowboys, is pure, saturated longing. Kay, Louie and Gordon drive to this wilderness only to find the seven jackaroos, like something out of Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo,” spending yearning nights under the blue-purple skies, brushing up on their two-step. It’s absolutely magical.

Deadpan funny as the script can be--to balance its horrific moments--its wit is matched by the director’s visual style. Campion, with cinematographer Sally Bongers, uses an accumulation of images to build mood; a blizzard of them at first, slowing down as the film builds. Her character’s claustrophobia and depressions are caught by subjective angles within rooms or landscapes, yet there’s not an uninteresting image in the film.

The cast is breathtaking. Clearly, there would be no film without Genevieve Lemon’s uncanny, unsparing Sweetie, touched with a sort of grandiosity of aberration; hers is an amazing creation. But in less flamboyant ways every actor, down to the maddening little boy next door (Andre Pataczek), is working with an equal measure of skill and delicacy.


Campion and Gerard Lee, her co-writer, regard Sweetie with a sort of detached amazement, refusing to sentimentalize her. She’s the film’s explosive humor, its sexuality, its pathos, and its reflective energy source. There’s no question that she’s deeply disturbing, yet it’s clear that Campion regards this tyrant--who has held her entire family hostage emotionally for nearly 25 years--with equal love and clarity. And if there could be any question that Kay’s love matches her fury at her mad sister, watch Kay’s action in their closing scene together. It’s the summation of their entire impossible relationship.


An Avenue Pictures presentation. Producer John Maynard. Co-producer William MacKinnen. Director Jane Campion. Screenplay Gerard Lee, Campion from an original idea by Campion. Camera Sally Bongers. Editor Veronika (c.q.) Haussler. Music Martin Armiger. Artistic director Peter Harris. Costumes Amanda Lovejoy. Sound Leo Sullivan. With Genevieve Lemon, Karen Colston, Tom Lycos, Dorothy Barry, Jon Darling, Michael Lake, Andre Pataczek (c.q.). Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (nudity, intense subject matter)