2020 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL: Black and white cinematography, when capably deployed in modern times, is an added bonus to a quality movie. The monochromatic look has the ability to lend poetry and weight to the story. The Tribeca title “Sweet Thing” has that poetic element in spades. A relatively traditional independent cinema story is raised up by a look that suggests a true timelessness.
“Sweet Thing” shares its DNA with diverse work such as “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “The Florida Project,” only filtered through the lens of early Jim Jarmusch. Here, writer/director Alexandre Rockwell has cast his children in the lead roles of a different sort of adolescent tale. Caught somewhere between fairy tale and real life, describing it as a visual poem is really quite apt. It may not be for everyone, but what Rockwell is presenting is always interesting and never less than beautiful.
Siblings Billie (Lana Rockwell) Nico (Nico Rockwell) have a tough life in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The two live with their alcoholic father Adam (Will Patton), finding what little scrap metal around town they can grab and sell. Billie, named after Billie Holliday (Kelly Charpent), daydreams of her namesake often, as a means of escape. The teen and her younger brother alternate between tender and fearful moments with Adam. Their mother Eve (Karyn Parsons) has long since up and left, abandoning the family to move near the beach with a new boyfriend in Beaux (ML Josepher). However, Eve takes the kids on for the summer, with the hope being that it’s a nice and simple escape. It proves to be anything but.
Once Beaux becomes abusive to the point of danger, the pair have left no choice but to run away with their new friend Malik (Jabari Watkins). Now a trio, they seek to form a new family, one made up of adolescents looking for acceptance as outsiders. They’re each part of society’s fringes, but their desires remain simple and deeply relatable. With the resilience that comes with their young age, they set off to find the happiness that has eluded them throughout life so far.
The cinematography by Lasse Ulvedal Tolbøll is truly something to behold. Even more so than the central performances from Lana Rockwell and Nico Rockwell, Tolbøll’s visuals are the star. To be sure, the little Rockwells are compelling and real to watch, it’s just all elevated by the look of the film. The black and white look of the work, interspersed with some select bursts of color, is the heart and soul of what’s being depicted. We care about the kids, but their quiet lives of desperation are given a sense of poetry by how it’s all captured.
Filmmaker Alexandre Rockwell takes Tolbøll’s camerawork and gives soul to it. The script is simple and lacking in any frills, so embracing this throwback form of direction is truly the way to go. “Sweet Thing” never seems pretentious or masturbatory, despite Rockwell making this largely about his family. It just feels natural, which is essential to its success. Even when there are moments when the plot grinds to a halt, Rockwell’s aesthetic, especially the selected moments of color, help this one to stay steadily on its feet.
“Sweet Thing” rewards your patience. Despite slow pacing, the short running time evens things out, with the end result truly moving. With a monochrome look and naturalistic performances abound, it’s the kind of indie movie that will connect with a small but vocal community. Had Tribeca been more of a true festival this year, it very well might have caught on in a big way.
“Sweet Thing” is a part of the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.