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Sweet Thing: Alexandre Rockwell’s family affair

The warm and beating heart of this family-in-crisis drama is pure French New Wave

Sweet Thing: Lana Rockwell and Nico Rockwell star in dad Alexandre Rockwell's tender coming-of-age drama.
Sweet Thing: Lana Rockwell and Nico Rockwell star in dad Alexandre Rockwell's tender coming-of-age drama.

The latest family affair from Alexandre Rockwell (In the Soup, 13 Moons) is a product from another time. On the surface, it could very well have been a black-and-white low-budget indie that was left lounging in a time capsule since missing its release window some 35 years ago. But the warm and beating heart of this family-in-crisis drama — told through the eyes of two untended siblings — is pure French New Wave, starting with a Truffaut-inspired iris in. And what a Sweet Thing it is.

Rockwell crossed my radar in 1989 when his third film, Sons, played the Chicago International Film Festival. In that one, Sam Fuller stars as a disabled American veteran, robbed of his will to speak, whose three sons from different mothers take their father to Normandy to visit a woman he romanced during the war. (As great as it sounds, the film has yet to see a home video release.) Few directors can capture the self-defeating agony of bickering better than Rockwell. In Sons, it was the step-brothers who did most of the squabbling; in Sweet Thing, it’s the parents.

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The first thing one notices about Billie (Lana Rockwell) and her younger brother Nico (Nico Rockwell) is their nonderelict appearance and how amazingly self-sufficient a pair of borderline homeless children lacking in proper parenting can be. Their days are spent skipping school in favor of pawning stolen scrap metal to survive. But rather than slinking through life as petty criminals, the altruistic duo begin recycling as a means of making cash. When first we meet, the two are living with their father Adam (Will Patton, in top form), who appears to make just enough money to keep a roof over their heads and his belly filled with firewater. Despite Adam’s many flaws, it’s difficult to dismiss a man who refers to his kids as “the only good things he’s ever done.”

Dad’s work is seasonal. During summer hours, he’s the human billboard in a Panda suit, twirling an arrow-shaped placard and sweating 100 proof. Come Christmas, he’s the MD 20/20-fragranced mall Santa promising to grant children their every wish while remaining incapable of looking after the basic needs of his own. (What’s more telling than Nico’s letter asking Santa to fill his Christmas stocking with a knife and gun?) Billie puts up with a lot of Adam’s drunkenly discourteous behavior, and she’s not alone. After Adam decides to give his daughter a “Christmas trim” by shearing away the gorgeous curls that remind him of his ex, Nico follows by giving himself a sympathy cut so that Lana doesn’t suffer alone.

It’s not hard to see why their mother Eve (Karyn Parsons, Alexandre’s wife and Lana and Nico’s mom) has her musclebound new beau Beaux (M.L. Josepher) in tow when she agrees to meet Adam and the kids for Christmas dinner. Beaux is a tough monkey, the kind of guy who snuffs out cigarette butts with his bare feet. Time spent with Beaux convinces the children that maybe life with an alcoholic father — one who loves them, at least — isn’t so bad. After all, Adam never played grab-ass with his daughter, nor would he punch Nico in the face for gently poking fun at him. When it becomes clear that Beaux’s vile affections mean more to Eve than her children’s safety, they take up with an artful dodger named Malik (Jabari Watkins), run away from home, and together form a trio of self-proclaimed outlaws and renegades.

Not every character they encounter is put in place simply to shock and exploit. A sweet, lovely couple offers the fledgling refugees shelter for the night and a tuna casserole to die for. It’s moments like this that dispel any notion of a celebrity production. (Is there any truth to the rumor that Will Smith is considering a $200 million remake for his kids?) Rather than reaching the water with no place left to run, one of our three Antoine Doinel surrogates takes a bullet that doesn’t claim his life. Even the bad guy is allowed to live, though it’s been said that he can’t put words together very well. Considering what atrocities audiences have seen children endure simply to advance a plot or add a foregone conclusion, there is a genteel nature at work here that keeps things gritty without once doubling down on foulness.

Alas, I didn’t discover that Sweet Thing was a sequel to Little Feet (2013) until watching the trailer after the movie. Check next week’s Movies@Home column for a sequel to this review. Sweet Thing was released last week; look for it wherever fine downloads are available. ★★★★

Video on Demand and New Release Roundup

The Ice Road — With less than thirty hours to save the twenty-six excavators trapped in a diamond mine cave-in, it’s up to Mike (Liam Neeson) and five other truckers to undertake a suicide mission by transporting, across the coldest region of Canada, three trucks containing the wellhead needed to save the day. Chances are you’ll be waging jeers at this ruination of The Wages of Fear, even though laughter was not the filmmaker’s intent. Mike’s brother and constant companion Gurty (Marcus Thomas) is an Iraq vet (and mechanic savant) who suffers from aphasia. It’s a language disorder that causes mean-spirited co-workers to collapse under the weight of Mike’s fist for referring to his younger sibling as a “retard.” It’s one thing to use Gurty as a means of evoking sympathy, but did they have to stoop so low as to make a mentally disabled character the most perceptive one in the bunch? Who will be the first driver to be dunked in the deep? (Congrats if you guessed the actor picking up the second biggest paycheck.) Another Netflix production that would have felt right at home at Cannon Films in the 1980s. Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, his first film since Kill the Irishman. With: Laurence Fishburn and Amber Midthunder in the role generally reserved for Aubrey Plaza. 2021. — S.M. ★★

Slow Machine — A vignette-heavy, character-driven thriller consumed by chatty types who, even as their adventitiously spun stories race to conclude, tempt us to question the veracity behind their rat-a-tat-ramblings. Of all the characters that couchsurfing actress Stephanie (Stephanie Hayes) encounters during the scant 72-minute running time, Gerard (Scott Shepherd) leaps out. His personality draws her in like a lion’s paw. A law enforcement agent, Gerard carries with him an element of unpredictability, if not danger. (His unexpected appearance at her AA Meeting causes Stephanie to ask, “Does the word anonymous mean nothing to you?”) He looks and dresses the part, but it still takes a few minutes to shake the notion that the guy who brought a drunken Stephanie to safety wasn’t also her kidnapper. Gerard gets interspersed throughout the first half of filmmakers Joe Denardo and Paul Felten’s nonlinear narrative, and once he’s out of the picture and Stephanie winds up bunking down at a musician’s commune, a huge chunk of the film’s fascination goes with him. Group leader Jim (Ean Sheehy) is assigned the singular character trait of angling to get into Stephanie’s pants. It will leave you in a fog, but until then, it’s a kick watching it run out of steam. 2020. — S.M. ★★★

Who Are You, Charlie Brown? — If your kids turned out even slightly well-adjusted, chances are two pop culture icons deserve credit with an assist: Fred Rogers and Charles Schulz. The former has already been galvanized on film, and until Tom Hanks gets around to playing Charlie Brown’s papa, this will have to do. As a child, I was never without a paperback compilation of the newspaper strips poking out of my back pocket. Around the Bar Mitzvah age, we parted company. With the exception of the TV specials and an occasional read in the Sunday funnies, I had forgotten the sizable contributions Schulz made to the art of comic strips, and the responsibility with which he cared for and nurtured the popular culture icons he created. Each of his characters represented a different facet of the cartoonist’s personality. He worked without assistance, right down to the inking, which he did himself. Franklin was the first recurring African-American character in a comic strip, but the idea came to Schulz from a woman named Harriet Glickman. And Peppermint Patty, patterned after tennis star Billie Jean King, was the group feminist. At a little under an hour, one could have done without the standalone TV special contained within (It’s a 500 Word Essay, Charlie Brown), although Pigpen starting a dust storm simply by jumping rope brought a smile. 2021. — S.M. ★★★

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Sweet Thing: Lana Rockwell and Nico Rockwell star in dad Alexandre Rockwell's tender coming-of-age drama.
Sweet Thing: Lana Rockwell and Nico Rockwell star in dad Alexandre Rockwell's tender coming-of-age drama.

The latest family affair from Alexandre Rockwell (In the Soup, 13 Moons) is a product from another time. On the surface, it could very well have been a black-and-white low-budget indie that was left lounging in a time capsule since missing its release window some 35 years ago. But the warm and beating heart of this family-in-crisis drama — told through the eyes of two untended siblings — is pure French New Wave, starting with a Truffaut-inspired iris in. And what a Sweet Thing it is.

Rockwell crossed my radar in 1989 when his third film, Sons, played the Chicago International Film Festival. In that one, Sam Fuller stars as a disabled American veteran, robbed of his will to speak, whose three sons from different mothers take their father to Normandy to visit a woman he romanced during the war. (As great as it sounds, the film has yet to see a home video release.) Few directors can capture the self-defeating agony of bickering better than Rockwell. In Sons, it was the step-brothers who did most of the squabbling; in Sweet Thing, it’s the parents.

Sponsored
Sponsored

The first thing one notices about Billie (Lana Rockwell) and her younger brother Nico (Nico Rockwell) is their nonderelict appearance and how amazingly self-sufficient a pair of borderline homeless children lacking in proper parenting can be. Their days are spent skipping school in favor of pawning stolen scrap metal to survive. But rather than slinking through life as petty criminals, the altruistic duo begin recycling as a means of making cash. When first we meet, the two are living with their father Adam (Will Patton, in top form), who appears to make just enough money to keep a roof over their heads and his belly filled with firewater. Despite Adam’s many flaws, it’s difficult to dismiss a man who refers to his kids as “the only good things he’s ever done.”

Dad’s work is seasonal. During summer hours, he’s the human billboard in a Panda suit, twirling an arrow-shaped placard and sweating 100 proof. Come Christmas, he’s the MD 20/20-fragranced mall Santa promising to grant children their every wish while remaining incapable of looking after the basic needs of his own. (What’s more telling than Nico’s letter asking Santa to fill his Christmas stocking with a knife and gun?) Billie puts up with a lot of Adam’s drunkenly discourteous behavior, and she’s not alone. After Adam decides to give his daughter a “Christmas trim” by shearing away the gorgeous curls that remind him of his ex, Nico follows by giving himself a sympathy cut so that Lana doesn’t suffer alone.

It’s not hard to see why their mother Eve (Karyn Parsons, Alexandre’s wife and Lana and Nico’s mom) has her musclebound new beau Beaux (M.L. Josepher) in tow when she agrees to meet Adam and the kids for Christmas dinner. Beaux is a tough monkey, the kind of guy who snuffs out cigarette butts with his bare feet. Time spent with Beaux convinces the children that maybe life with an alcoholic father — one who loves them, at least — isn’t so bad. After all, Adam never played grab-ass with his daughter, nor would he punch Nico in the face for gently poking fun at him. When it becomes clear that Beaux’s vile affections mean more to Eve than her children’s safety, they take up with an artful dodger named Malik (Jabari Watkins), run away from home, and together form a trio of self-proclaimed outlaws and renegades.

Not every character they encounter is put in place simply to shock and exploit. A sweet, lovely couple offers the fledgling refugees shelter for the night and a tuna casserole to die for. It’s moments like this that dispel any notion of a celebrity production. (Is there any truth to the rumor that Will Smith is considering a $200 million remake for his kids?) Rather than reaching the water with no place left to run, one of our three Antoine Doinel surrogates takes a bullet that doesn’t claim his life. Even the bad guy is allowed to live, though it’s been said that he can’t put words together very well. Considering what atrocities audiences have seen children endure simply to advance a plot or add a foregone conclusion, there is a genteel nature at work here that keeps things gritty without once doubling down on foulness.

Alas, I didn’t discover that Sweet Thing was a sequel to Little Feet (2013) until watching the trailer after the movie. Check next week’s Movies@Home column for a sequel to this review. Sweet Thing was released last week; look for it wherever fine downloads are available. ★★★★

Video on Demand and New Release Roundup

The Ice Road — With less than thirty hours to save the twenty-six excavators trapped in a diamond mine cave-in, it’s up to Mike (Liam Neeson) and five other truckers to undertake a suicide mission by transporting, across the coldest region of Canada, three trucks containing the wellhead needed to save the day. Chances are you’ll be waging jeers at this ruination of The Wages of Fear, even though laughter was not the filmmaker’s intent. Mike’s brother and constant companion Gurty (Marcus Thomas) is an Iraq vet (and mechanic savant) who suffers from aphasia. It’s a language disorder that causes mean-spirited co-workers to collapse under the weight of Mike’s fist for referring to his younger sibling as a “retard.” It’s one thing to use Gurty as a means of evoking sympathy, but did they have to stoop so low as to make a mentally disabled character the most perceptive one in the bunch? Who will be the first driver to be dunked in the deep? (Congrats if you guessed the actor picking up the second biggest paycheck.) Another Netflix production that would have felt right at home at Cannon Films in the 1980s. Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, his first film since Kill the Irishman. With: Laurence Fishburn and Amber Midthunder in the role generally reserved for Aubrey Plaza. 2021. — S.M. ★★

Slow Machine — A vignette-heavy, character-driven thriller consumed by chatty types who, even as their adventitiously spun stories race to conclude, tempt us to question the veracity behind their rat-a-tat-ramblings. Of all the characters that couchsurfing actress Stephanie (Stephanie Hayes) encounters during the scant 72-minute running time, Gerard (Scott Shepherd) leaps out. His personality draws her in like a lion’s paw. A law enforcement agent, Gerard carries with him an element of unpredictability, if not danger. (His unexpected appearance at her AA Meeting causes Stephanie to ask, “Does the word anonymous mean nothing to you?”) He looks and dresses the part, but it still takes a few minutes to shake the notion that the guy who brought a drunken Stephanie to safety wasn’t also her kidnapper. Gerard gets interspersed throughout the first half of filmmakers Joe Denardo and Paul Felten’s nonlinear narrative, and once he’s out of the picture and Stephanie winds up bunking down at a musician’s commune, a huge chunk of the film’s fascination goes with him. Group leader Jim (Ean Sheehy) is assigned the singular character trait of angling to get into Stephanie’s pants. It will leave you in a fog, but until then, it’s a kick watching it run out of steam. 2020. — S.M. ★★★

Who Are You, Charlie Brown? — If your kids turned out even slightly well-adjusted, chances are two pop culture icons deserve credit with an assist: Fred Rogers and Charles Schulz. The former has already been galvanized on film, and until Tom Hanks gets around to playing Charlie Brown’s papa, this will have to do. As a child, I was never without a paperback compilation of the newspaper strips poking out of my back pocket. Around the Bar Mitzvah age, we parted company. With the exception of the TV specials and an occasional read in the Sunday funnies, I had forgotten the sizable contributions Schulz made to the art of comic strips, and the responsibility with which he cared for and nurtured the popular culture icons he created. Each of his characters represented a different facet of the cartoonist’s personality. He worked without assistance, right down to the inking, which he did himself. Franklin was the first recurring African-American character in a comic strip, but the idea came to Schulz from a woman named Harriet Glickman. And Peppermint Patty, patterned after tennis star Billie Jean King, was the group feminist. At a little under an hour, one could have done without the standalone TV special contained within (It’s a 500 Word Essay, Charlie Brown), although Pigpen starting a dust storm simply by jumping rope brought a smile. 2021. — S.M. ★★★

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