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Sweet Thing: bittersweet childhood in gorgeous gray

(Lana Rockwell © Mélanie Akoka)

Premiered in Berlin, shaped like Sundance. The first paces of ‘Sweet Thing’ feel as they are taken from Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Kid’. By iris-in, iris-out, long shot cuts into close- ups, the director Alexander Rockwell conveys a really fresh and intimate nostalgia beyond what you’d see in the usual Black & White indie flick. Van Morrison and Billie Holiday lyrics provey emotional LP magic to this soothing drama film with an optimistic trust on children.

‘Sweet Thing‘ revolves on two kids Billie (Lana Rockwell) and Nico (Nico Rockwell) whose parents deal with alcohol and poverty after splitting up so they set off to find some temporary happiness, a brisk joy that comes in colored grainy shots. The film is much about the effect of family issues on children too, as noticeably the film is starred by the children as well as the wife of Alexander Rockwell, Karyn Parsons (Hillary Banks in ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’). Will Patton takes the role of the dad.

It is quite a surprise to find a white director interested in class consciousness who understands skipping school, knows about police racism… Environed by the suburbia, a young kid such as Nico asks instinctively for a knife and a toy gun in his letter to Santa and verbally threatens to kill his father when all goes wrong, which matches with the poorer countries discourse and criminalization of youth, with parricide fantasy and childhood trauma as a pivotal point (deeply researched by Karina García).

Rockwell bluntly confronts the adult world against the children, they are forced to put up with their parents’ problems that frustrate their natural hope, happiness and clarity of mind. So they try to detach themselves and run away in the search for a Neverland. They start off at an idealized firework fight by the beach. Walking montage by the railway suggests a dialog with the movie ‘Stand by me’, in which at the end of the road characters were to see something that would make them come-of-age. There is, nonetheless, an antagonistic thrive to this journey: while they get by perfectly on their own, they still long for protection in the fatherly figures. It’s too soon. Billie herself has to act as a mother throughout the film to protect her sibling. All in all, father couldn’t make it up to them during Christmas even in a Santa costume.

Lana Rockwell carries the film exceptionally well at 16 and is as beautiful as teen angel, her presence reassuring, and those brief color experiences make her honey colored eyes and blond curls pop out even more. Do tell how good it is to have some storytelling about the “bad hair”, the frizzy hair. Bad Hair is so unique to the black experience, with parents helping daughters through haircare during childhood they learn that hair is beautiful although it is not always as seen in the mainstream white media. Billie misses a motherly figure combing her hair, and dad degradingly cuts it because it reminds him of his wife. Billie is seen in a wool cap ever since.

Her mother, on the other hand, is belittled by her new boyfriend, a really misogynistic man full of himself, and that is also seen by the hair, as she has her natural afro changed into an ironed blonde. The look varies so that you wouldn’t even recognize Eve from the pictures that her kids keep dearly. The fairy godmother as Billie Holiday also resembles Karyn Parsons: both characters are mixed up in a confused role model who dwells in daydreams. Then de-mythification comes about shockingly when you see her act like a wannabe rich. Her father is completely unstable and every improvement is deceptive. But everything falls into place, every rough patch passes, and we all get to be young and wild for some more minutes.

Grade: ***1/2 (out of 5)

Zep Armentano

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Berlin 2019: The dailies from the Berlin Film Festival brought to you by our team of festival ambassadors. Vanessa McMahon, Alex Deleon, Laurie Gordon, Lindsay Bellinger and Bruno Chatelin...
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