Directed by indie filmmaker Alexandre Rockwell, Sweet Thing stars Lana Rockwell as teenager Billie, who lives with her younger brother Nico (real-life sibling Nico Rockwell) and their loving yet alcoholic father Adam (Will Patton). When Adam finds himself stuck in rehab, the children are forced to stay with mother Eve (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air‘s Karyn Parsons) and her boyfriend Beaux (ML Josepher). During their stay at the beach, Billie and Nico meet Malik (Jabari Watkins), who shares their dreams of escape and the trio embark on an unlikely adventure.
At first glance, Sweet Thing is not so sweet. Bathed in a monotone colour palette, Billie and younger brother Nico choose to mess around and sell random items rather than go to school. Billie bears the brunt of the narrative – although she is still a child, she is the household’s most responsible person, ensuring that Christmas presents are wrapped and dinner is on the table. Meanwhile, Adam works dead-end jobs to earn money yet chooses to spend it on booze. His ex-wife Eve (Parsons) doesn’t have an active role as a mother – like Adam, she is quite dismissive of her childrens’ misery, choosing to prioritise alcohol and her relationship with god-awful boyfriend Beaux over her own flesh and blood.
In terms of casting, young Lana Rockwell stands out with her melancholic portrayal of Billie. Her expressive performance brings a sad resignation that, despite Billie’s responsibilities and a need to find happiness, wants to remember the carefree life of youth. Given their real-life relationship, Lana and Nico’s on-screen rapport is unsurprisingly endearing and they bring a solid stage for the intimate direction.
With both their parents being poor role models, Billie and Nico are pretty much living aimlessly. Sweet Thing‘s narrative is initially quite grim and quickly exacerbates as Adam and Eve’s treatment of their children swings from frustrating to shocking. By the time we realise that their lives are at risk, audiences are hoping for someone to help – nay, rescue – Billie and Nico. Their unlikely saviour comes in two forms – a dream-like version of singer Billie Holliday, who brings Billie comfort during tough times; and Malik, whose rebelliousness encourages the youngsters to rediscover their childhood through empty homes and treks through the wilderness. The rare appearances of Holliday, as well as tender moments between the three children, allows Rockwell to inject sporadic moments of technicolour, showing that these rare moments of happiness in Billie’s life are few and far between.
But it is this lack of uplifting moments that causes Sweet Thing to falter as there is no clarity in this supposed coming-of-age story due to an abundance of moments that emphasise the harsh realities of life and the naivety of the children, who abide by the fact that being an adult sucks. As the film goes on, audiences are left waiting for the film’s life-affirming message but despite several opportunities, Rockwell chooses to be a grim realist rather than surrender to the proverbial happy ending.
Overall, the nostalgic aesthetics and Rockwell’s direction bring a rawness that doesn’t try to soften the harshness of Billie and Nico’s circumstances but despite the tender performances, there isn’t enough to fully invest in this coming-of-age drama.
Sweet Thing will be released in cinemas nationwide (UK & Ireland) from 10 September 2021.
Director: Alexandre Rockwell
Stars: Lana Rockwell, Nico Rockwell, Will Patton, Karyn Parsons, ML Josepher, Jabari Watkins
Runtime: 91 minutes