Movie Review: “Sweet Thing” comes of age in a broken home

“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

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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4 Responses to Movie Review: “Sweet Thing” comes of age in a broken home

  1. Alexandre Rockwell says:

    Ouch. Well thankfully not everyone is as confident and dire about the efforts made to make something with great care and love as Mr. Moore is here. I would ask you to see the film for yourself and then ask honestly if Mr. Moore brings something extra to his reaction to this film. Watch Lana’s performance and Will Patton’s human and frail portrayal of a man agonizing over his love for his kids as he struggles with his disease as well as the appearance of Billie Holliday (Grandma?) whose spirit leads her namesake young Billie though a tough world. This film was made with everything I had and everyone including Arvo Part and Van Morrison(whom you might trust) liked it enough to lend their considerable talents to it’s creation. I will read Mr. Moore’s other reviews and see how they add up. I wish him the best going forward and clearly disagree with his simplistic and dismissive review of my film. Best wishes, Alexandre Rockwell (Writer director “Sweet Thing)

    • Roger Moore says:

      Van Morrison isn’t the lofty endorsement you seem to think it is, chief.

      • Alexandre Rockwell says:

        “Chief”? I’ll go with that. And VAN MORRISON may have his faults but craft is not one of them. If you are ever in NYC sometime look me up and we can get a better understanding of the animosity I sense coming from you. It is fair for you to critique my work as it is for me to respond to yours. Unfortunately, my hope is in time you might improve and shallow reviews of deeply felt and well crafted work like “Sweet Thing” might be a thing of the past.
        Pauline Kael, (who was brutal sometimes in her response to films she did not care for) once said to me that ” The trick of good film critique is to only write about films that you are passionate about” . These are good words to steer by and I really do hope you to take them to heart and continue to expand and grow as a writer. I make each film with the passion that it might be my last. I am not sure if they are any good really but the overwhelming positive response to Sweet Thing has been encouraging and lifted my sprits.
        I was particularly stung by your use of an ugly phrase that appears often since Chloe Zao made her film ‘Nomad Land’: ” Poverty porn”. This is a profoundly offensive suggestion as if for some reason my reflecting on personal memories of living in a broken family saturated in alcohol and abuse was in anyway pornographic. This would seem as if I was exploiting something as a voyeur. No, not so Roger, I won’t go further into my own childhood but I will say that others who have been raised in that challenging atmosphere have responded in a very different way. Their lives are filled with love and pain, abuse and hope all mixed together and that is the lot for those of us who spent our formative years in that complex world. It was difficult to navigate but would not trade it for another and I would not have been able to make Sweet Thing from another perspective.
        It is ridiculously hard to make these films but all that matters is what is on the screen and would have been really pleased if you had acknowledged some of the very fine work my collaborators contributed ( Lana, Nico, Will , Karyn and the very fine cast) even if in your opinion felt my directing and writing was “Groping for a story”. It is true I am ‘hunting’ for moments of truth and may or may not hit my mark all the time but for me that is my way. I know that through my craft I am getting better at setting traps to capture these elusive moments. It is after all what makes it worth taking such a long and journey in the first place. Perhaps that’s why you feel I am groping but I would ask you again to look and listen and consider what it is I am ‘groping’ for and sometimes succeeding in capturing.
        Onward Roger, and let’s continue to improve and agree to consider our best work lay ahead of us.

      • Roger Moore says:

        So, a third generation descendent of Russian nobility, actors, animators and artists, once married to Jennifer Beal, is “offended” on getting called out for making “poverty porn?”
        Isn’t your photo on two Wikipedia pages? Your bio and the very IMAGE of privilege?
        Or are you assuming others won’t look up your background when you drop the names of long dead Kael and the Aged Irish Crank and to you, Giant of the Cinema, Morrison?
        You act as if you’ve never gotten a bad review or been called out.
        You have. Plenty of times.
        You’ve made good movies and bad or indifferent ones. This one did nothing for me. But at least you’ve ensured your progeny have a leg up on the profession, like you, to the manner born.
        Perhaps Kael would have celebrated your facile slumming with this film. I met her a few times and she gave up her indulged favorites grudgingly.
        Comfort yourself with that, chief.

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