“Sweet Thing,” the latest film from veteran indie filmmaker Alexandre Rockwell is an ambling, self-consciously arty and yet utterly conventional coming-of-age drama starring his children, Lana and Nico.
If you only remember his breakthrough film, 1992’s wry “In the Soup,” it can feel like a departure. But considering the quixotic filmography that followed — “13 Moons,” “Louis & Frank,” “Pete Smalls is Dead” — and the fact that his largely unseen previous film (“Little Feet”) also starred his kids, “Sweet Thing” fits that artist-groping-for-a-story-and-a-means-of-filming-it cliche.
Because this dreamy drift through a troubled childhood traffics in cliches.
Billie (Lana Rockwell) was named for Billie Holiday, and she sings and plays the ukulele. She’s a young teen who is the primary caregiver of her little brother Nico (Nico Rockwell).
That’s because Dad (Will Patton) staggers from pocket-change job to pocket change job. Literally. He’s a drunk, and gets money for booze if not food for his kids by wearing a panda suit for a Chinese restaurant.
“I got you a treat,” he slurs in a more sober moment. “Don’t ask me where I got it. That’s between me and the surveillance camera!”
Mom ditched them, so Billie and Nico are scrambling to sell stuff — aluminum cans, an old toilet — for cash, or drum up business for a local used tire shop by sticking nails under parked cars.
This impoverished corner of suburban, coastal Massachusetts where they live (New Bedford was the filming location) has rocky beaches and slums, and the junkyards are full of boats.
Billie has visions of an older woman and the security she symbolizes. Grandma? Maybe. Because we meet Mom (Karyn Parsons), and she’s moved on. Vague “we’ll get together” promises are all she offers. Dad’s confrontations with her new man, Beaux (M.L. Josepher) aren’t helpful.
There’s a hint of something even darker than the alcoholism that haunts their father. Is he abusive? And when they finally end up staying with Mom when Dad gets locked up to sober up, those worries are renewed. Beaux is a bully, among other failings.
Luckily, they have a new friend, Malik (Jabari Watkins) to goof around with, and when the chips are down, count on if they have to run away. He’s sweet on Billie and her curly blonde locks.
Rockwell immerses us in the sort of warm “poverty porn” that such films too-often traffic in. “The Florida Project” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” managed that “a romanticized child’s view of down and out” far better.
Here, the threats to childhood come from every direction, yet the kids can’t quite be stirred from their waking dream. They swim, wander, struggle and bond.
Rockwell stages some grimly realistic moments of adult humiliation — their father’s and their mother’s.
Mostly, he’s just filming kids being kids — walking railroad tracks, climbing onto abandoned boats, sitting in a dimly-lit hovel singing or picking out a tune.
He shot in black and white and uses old fashioned iris-in/iris-out transitions at times, reinforcing this “dream of childhood” idea.
To be honest, that’s not enough.
“Sweet Thing” starts from natural empathy at the sight of seeing kids struggling, but refuses to grapple with that.
The few way stations on this overly-familiar wander through “picaresque” don’t make you feel much of anything, just a vague sense that “Oh, that’s pretty” and “that scene was nice” from “there’s no food in the house” to intimations of molestation, all the way to Rockwell’s cop out of an ending.
The kids are generally unaffected and “real,” the setting is novel and the black and white heightens to sense of “grit” even if this is far from “gritty.” “Sweet Thing” just never amounts to much that’s sweet, or magical or tragic or sad.
Rating: unrated, violence, sexual abuse
Cast: Lana Rockwell, Nico Rockwell, Jabari Watkins, Karyn Parsons, M.L. Josepher and Will Patton.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Alexandre Rockwell. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:31