Sweetie (1989) is the debut feature film from renowned New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion. It tells the story of the odd and superstitious Kay, a quiet twenty-something woman, and her various relationships. In the beginning, she visits a tea-leaf reader on what seems like a whim. During her walk to the woman’s house, we see her black leather shoes skip every crack in the pavement.
Once there, the psychic tells her a man is soon going to enter her life. That same day, she begins a relationship with Louis, a man who was just engaged that morning to another woman.
“It’s just,” she says haltingly to Louis at their workplace’s parking garage, “I’m destined to be with you.”
The cement post behind them is emblazoned with the number 13. Abruptly, the film fast forwards 13 months ahead.
A third of the way into the film, the focus shifts from Kay’s relationship with Louis to her relationship with the title character, Sweetie. Sweetie, whose real name is Dawn, is Kay’s mentally-ill sister. When Sweetie breaks into their house while Kay and Louis are out on a date, reserved Kay suddenly erupts into invectives the following morning. It’s a jarring display that made me wonder what exactly their relationship history is like. The film moves forward to relate not only the troubled past between the sisters, but the unraveling dysfunction of the sisters’ family.
Stylistically and visually, the film is ambitious. Campion asserts a strong experimental vision through framing and angles that are just a little bit off to warrant attention from even the most casual moviegoer. Many shots shirk the rule-of-thirds to favour fourths, placing the subject close to the edge of a frame or even cutting them off, while the background dominates. Many shots are also filmed from unconventionally high places, towering over characters as they speak to one another. Finally, the camera is also often askew, tilting the subjects and heightening the feel of anxiety. These unconventional choices make for a slight discomfort in the audience, and push them towards the frame of mind of the superstitious Kay.
The dialogue is stilted and the performances are stiff, which adds to the alienating ambiance of the film. Kay takes on a whining tone whenever she speaks, and Louis seems just to take it in apathetic stride. Kay’s mom, who is about to separate from their father, shows little emotion upon her departure.
As she checks her appearance in the mirror, Kay’s mom tells her dad, “It’s only a trial. A month apart.”
He doesn’t respond, so after another check in the mirror, she leaves.
But for me, the highlight of Sweetie is the final act. It is here that Campion succeeds in humanizing one character—the unpredictable Sweetie. We find out that she was a talented performer as a child, and that time, her mental illness got in the way of her success. The family dysfunction comes to a tragic apex, but with it comes a beautiful elegy for the title character.
If you’re a fan of David Lynch’s technical and visual style and Yorgos Lanthimos’ characters and dialogues, I think you’ll find that Sweetie is a sweet middle ground.