July 20, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Alexandre Rockwell
Culture Representation: Taking place in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the dramatic film “Sweet Thing” features a cast of white, African American and biracial people representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A 15-year-old aspiring singer and her 11-year-old brother run away from home after a violent incident involving the boyfriend of their divorced mother.
Culture Audience: “Sweet Thing” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in realistic dramas about adolescent angst and dysfunctional families.
The dramatic film “Sweet Thing” is in black and white, but the movie aptly shows how problems of abuse, parental neglect and family dysfunction are experienced in life’s shades of gray. It’s a movie where kids grow up too fast and learn very early about harsh realities, but they try to find some kind of normalcy by fleeing into a fantasy world where they think they have total control. “Sweet Thing” takes place over less than nine months, but viewers will be left wondering how the fateful summer that’s presented in this movie will have long-term effects on these troubled kids in the future.
Written and directed by Alexandre Rockwell, the siblings at the center of “Sweet Thing” are 15-year-old Billie (played by Lana Rockwell) and 11-year-old Nico (played by Nico Rockwell), who are very close and protective of each other in their messed-up family life in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Lana and Nico Rockwell are director Alexandre Rockwell’s real-life children. Lana and Nico also starred as different characters in their father’s 2013 movie “Little Feet.” In interviews, Alexandre Rockwell has said that “Sweet Thing” is not biographical, but some elements of the movie are what he experienced in his own childhood.
Billie and Nico both have rebellious sides (they play pranks, such as putting nails in the tires of strangers’ cars), but Billie is the more responsibly minded sibling. She’s sensitive, strong-willed and intelligent. Nico has a more extroverted and talkative personality than Billie. But on the flip side, Nico is more likely than Billie to make rude comments to his peers and authority figures. Billie and Nico have an unstable home life, but their loyalty to each other is unwavering.
Billie is a poetry-loving singer and guitar player who dreams of becoming a professional music artist. When she’s having a bad day, Billie retreats into a fantasy world where her namesake Billie Holiday (played by Kelly Charpent) is taking care of her and is like a fairy godmother to her. In one of these fantasy visions (which is one of the movie’s rare scenes that’s in color), Billie Holiday comforts Billie by combing Billie’s hair.
It’s easy to see why Billie would want to escape into these fantasies, because life isn’t going so well for Billie and Nico. Their bickering parents are divorced. Billie and Nico’s father Adam (played by Will Patton), who has custody of the kids, is an alcoholic who gets cranky and impatient when he’s drunk, which seems to be every day. Billie is really the mature “parent” in the household, because she often has to help Adam to his bed when he’s drunk and it’s time for him to go to sleep.
In the beginning of the movie, it’s around the Christmas holiday season. Adam is dressed as Santa Claus. And he’s drunk, as usual. And you know what that means: He’s probably going to ruin his children’s Christmas with his alcoholic ways.
Meanwhile, a teen named Darla (played by Naejaliesh Pierre) has a crush on Nico. Billie likes to tease Nico about it. When Darla shows up at the family home to look for Nico so that she can give him a Christmas present, Nico pretends that he isn’t home, much to Billie’s amusement.
Billie has gotten a Christmas gift that she absolutely loves: an acoustic guitar. But when an angry alcoholic is in the household, it’s only a matter of time before something bad will happen to that guitar. Nico and Billie’s Christmas is about to go downhill for another reason: They’re going to see their mother Eve (played by Karyn Parsons), who’s in and out of the children’s lives and doesn’t seem to want custody of them. (In real life, Parsons is married to director Alexandre Rockwell and is the mother of Lana and Nico Rockwell.)
Adam brings Billie and Nico to a parking lot so that the kids can meet up with Eve. She introduces them to her new live-in boyfriend Beaux (played by ML Josepher), who seems to be a shady “ne’er do well” type. Eve isn’t much better, since viewers will see that she’s very flaky, although she does make a few attempts to be a good mother. While Billie and Nico are waiting in the car, Adam gets into a physical tussle with Beaux. Needless to say, the rest of the short time that the kids have with Eve that day is filled with tension.
When Adam takes the kids home, he’s in a very foul mood. Adam suddenly decides that he wants to give Billie a haircut, but Billie doesn’t want him to do it. Billie and Adam start arguing, Adam flies into a rage, and he locks Billie and Nico in the bathroom and accidentally breaks Billie’s new guitar.
Adam forces Billie to get a haircut from him, as he says sternly, “Think of it as a Christmas trim.” After this ordeal is over, Billie sees that Nico has cut his own hair, as a way to show solidarity to his sister. Nico says to Billie, “I did it for you. I didn’t want you to be alone. Daddy didn’t mean it. He’s just sad. I promise.”
Adam will have even more reason to be “sad,” because he’s arrested for a crime he committed outside the home, and he’s sent to court-ordered rehab. And so, Nico and Billie reluctantly have to live with Eve and Beaux at Eve’s summer house by the beach. It’s never really made clear what Eve and Beaux do for a living, but they spend their days drinking heavily. Eve and Beaux also like to sun themselves on the beach a lot.
For the most part, Eve and Beaux let Nico and Billie spend a lot of unsupervised time together. Beaux even takes some time alone with Nico to teach him how to fish. However, Beaux soon shows that he’s a very nasty person.
Beaux becomes abusive to Eve, Nico and Billie. He’s the type of mean drunk who yells and gets physically aggressive. For example, Beaux orders Nico to get him a beer, and slaps Nico when Nico replies, “Get it yourself.” Beaux then flings whipped cream on Eve, Billie and Nico. Eve doesn’t do anything to defend herself and her children. In fact, she blames the kids when Beaux takes out his anger on them.
Things get even more disturbing when one day, Nico tells Billie that Beaux sexually molested him. A horrified Billie tells Eve, who doesn’t believe her and ends up slapping Billie. The tension in the household escalates into a violent incident that won’t be described here, but it’s enough to say that it causes Nico and Billie to run away.
Most of “Sweet Thing” shows what happens during Billie and Nico’s experiences as runaways. On the beach, they meet a skateboarding, runaway teen named Malik (played by Jabari Watkins), who’s about the same age as Billie. Malik, who also comes from a troubled family, becomes fast friends with Billie and Nico. In many ways, Malik is even more rebellious than Billie and Nico, and he’s usually the one who comes up with the ideas for any mischief making.
“Sweet Thing” is a minimalistic independent drama that shows the ripple effects of growing up in a very damaged family. Viewers will only see less than a year in the lives of Nico and Billie, but it’s a snapshot of how a traumatic cycle of abuse can be passed down to a family’s next generation. Questions that will be raised that the movie can’t answer are: “How it will all affect Nico and Billie as adults? Will they be able to stop the cycle of abuse when they’re old enough to not be under parental supervision?”
And although it would be easy to say that Nico and Billie’s parents should lose custody, and the kids should be put in foster care, the harrowing reality is that many kids (but not all) in foster care experience even more abuse. There’s some melodrama toward the end of the film, but it doesn’t come across as overly contrived. (Van Morrison’s song “Sweet Thing” is used in the movie in an effective way.)
“Sweet Thing” doesn’t glorify or glamorize the experience of being a runaway, because Nico, Billie and Malik are still “trapped” by fear and paranoia of getting caught. Their “freedom” is just an illusion and comes at a heavy price. Alexandre Rockwell’s unpretentious direction of “Sweet Thing” is very much like what you would expect of a low-budget drama where the acting is naturalistic and doesn’t look over-rehearsed. And although the adult actors have their compelling moments, the children are really the heart and soul of the movie.
Film Movement released “Sweet Thing” in New York City and in U.S. virtual cinemas on June 18, 2021.