Here is a drama about kids trying to escape abusive environments, shot mostly in black and white, written and directed by Alexandre Rockwell, who was once going to be the next big thing after early hit In the Soup and contributing a quarter to portmanteau work Four Rooms. But he struggled to get his subsequent films airborne: none were big, or even medium-sized, hits. Tiny and intimate, Sweet Thing isn’t likely to do boffo box-office either, but this small, delicate, late-blooming film is quite lovely, and a throwback to the 1990s/2000s craze for semi-improvised, rough and ready indie film-making.
Like George Washington from 2000 or 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, much of its success rests on the narrow shoulders of its young leads, who happen to be played by Rockwell’s own children. (They also starred in the director’s Little Feet a few years ago.) Indeed, this is very much a family affair: the kids’ real mother, Karyn Parsons, also plays their mother, although creating in the process a character hopefully very unlike her own. As the story starts, 14- or 15-year-old Billie (Lana Rockwell) and her little brother Nico (Nico Rockwell) are living with their dad, sometime sidewalk Santa but mostly unemployed Adam (Will Patton) – a man so soaked in booze that, with one spark, he’d go up like a discarded Christmas tree. When he finally gets sent to rehab, the kids are billeted with Eve, their mother, and her sleazy boyfriend Beaux (ML Josepher). But the latter turns out to be both physically and sexually abusive, and the kids run off with Malik (Jabari Watkins) a similarly down-on-his-luck teen from the neighbourhood.
The last act falls back on hoary old plotting cliches, even going so far as to include a Chekhovian pistol. But the easy, spontaneous banter back and forth between the kids is charming, and all three actors hold the camera like they were born to act. If you had to pick a standout, it’s probably Lana Rockwell, who not only has a mesmerising stillness and the expressive features of a Renaissance Madonna, but is also gifted with a lustrous singing voice, shown off several times via her haunting a cappella rendition of Van Morrison’s Sweet Thing – turned here into a piercing reclamation of innocence.