Though she went on to create a string of brilliant films, Jane Campion will always be remembered for her knockout debut feature, Sweetie, which focuses on the hazardous relationship between the buttoned-down, superstitious Kay and her rampaging, devil-may-care sister, Sweetie—and on their family’s profoundly rotten roots. A feast of colorful photography and captivating, idiosyncratic characters, Sweetie heralded the emergence of this gifted director, as well as a renaissance of Australian cinema, which would take the film world by storm in the nineties.
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
Director Jane Campion may be better known for feature films like 'The Piano' or 'The Portrait of a Lady', but she had to start somewhere, and that somewhere was with this quirk-filled film. I can't say that I actually enjoyed 'Sweetie.' Maybe it's just too oddball for me. The movie is just weird. There's no other way to say it. Watching 'Sweetie' is a strange experience.
Kay (Karen Colston) is, for lack of better words, mentally unstable. Trees frighten her, and she takes the ramblings of a tea leaf reader to heart when she steals the boyfriend of one of her co-workers just minutes after they got engaged.
Soon after, Kay and her new stolen boyfriend move in together. He wants to plant a tree in remembrance of when they met, she doesn't want the tree because she's afraid of them. Kay spends most of her time staring off into the distance at nothing in particular. They soon start to drift apart moving into separate rooms. Their lives are becoming a tedious game of do I love this person or not.
Before things get bad enough for them to split up, along comes Kay's more unstable sister Dawn (Geneviève Lemon), who everyone just calls Sweetie. At a very young age Sweetie was showered with praise by her father because of her mediocre singing ability. She grew up thinking that she couldn't do anything wrong. With her parents coddling her every step of the way, Sweetie never grew up. And now this adult child has moved into Kay's house.
Throwing quiet, reserved Kay together with manic Sweetie is a recipe for disaster. Their father has to come in to try and clean up the mess, but even he's unable to salvage it. This is a broken family that doesn't believe there's something wrong. They treat Sweetie like a family pet that breaks the rules every once and a while. In turn, Sweetie acts like a pet, barking and growling when she doesn't get her way.
Campion's direction has a very arthouse feel to it. Every shot is specifically placed to observe odd angles and a minimalist set production. Many of the actors here are were first time actors when the movie started shooting. Campion actually uses this to the benefit of the film. They don't have much in the way of range, but they're not supposed to. Kay is such an introvert that she never lets her true feelings be known. It makes sense to have a newbie actress in a role like that, because she wouldn't even know how to show her feelings on camera if she was asked to.
'Sweetie' is just too wacky at times. Personally, I just couldn't get into it. I couldn't relate with this family that seemed like they were plopped on earth from a different dimension. I'm a fan of Campion's later works, and while 'Sweetie' has glimpses of brilliance, there's just something off-putting about it. Still, as a feature film first for a renowned writer/director, 'Sweetie' is a very noble try indeed.
Blu-ray Vital Statistics
Criterion's version of 'Sweetie' comes packaged in the standard clear Criterion Blu-ray case with a spine number of 356. A sticker on the front of the shrink wrap packaging indicates that Criterion's video transfer was overseen and approved by director Jane Campion. Inside is a 14 page booklet including the detailed information about the film's transfer and also a five page essay entitled “Jane Campion's Experiment” by Dana Polan.
According to the information provided by Criterion about the transfer, it was supervised by director of photography Sally Bongers. Jane Campion approved the high-def transfer after its completion, so it's pretty safe to say that the way the movie is presented here is exactly the way the director intended the movie to look.
'Sweetie' is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Criterion's remaster of the movie looks just as good as numerous recent Criterion presentations. They've become one of the most consistent companies out there when it comes to restoring films and presenting them looking as close to perfect as possible in high definition. All the dirt and gunk has been meticulously cleaned from the transfer. There is some noticeable image jitter during the opening credits, but it subsides when the movie starts.
The movie retains its soft grainy look that, but still harbors quite a lot of detail. Almost too much detail. When Sweetie spits out a bunch of ceramic horses she's chewed up and her bloody spit hangs from her lips, it's hard not to wish that the transfer wasn't as good as it is. Colors are soft, like most of the photography. The soft, understated color palette lends itself well to the off-kilter family dynamic. Contrast seems like it's been pumped up a bit too much during outdoor scenes, but if Campion okeyed that decision, then there's not much fuss I can make over it. 'Sweetie' looks great on Blu-ray, especially for a movie from 1989. Criterion has done another bang up job with this release.
'Sweetie' is provided a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix.
Dialogue is presented clearly through the front and center channels. Even with the actors' thick Australian accents, all of the dialogue is intelligible. There isn't much in the way of ambient sound, the rear channels stay pretty silent for much of the time. Most of the movie's action is front and center, so the rear channels really don't have much time to come out and play. Still, there are times, like when the family is all together, where ambient sound bleeds into the rear speakers, but that isn't very often. LFE is surprisingly engaging, during scenes with odd music like the black and white insert of roots growing in the ground. It's very light low-end sound, but it's there.
Finally, there are no technical problems to report. If this movie had trouble with hissing or cracking then it's been completely fixed by Criterion. Just another great audio presentation from them. It's pretty much routine now.
- Making 'Sweetie' (HD, 23 min.) — Genevieve Lemon and Karen Colston talk about their work on the movie. From their points of view we get information about how the film was constructed and what they thought of their characters.
- Short Films (HD) — Three short films directed by Campion are included here. 'An Exercise in Discipline: Peel' (9 min), 'Passionless Moments' (12 min.), and 'A Girl's Own Story (27 min.).
- Jane Campion: The Film School Years (HD, 20 min.) — Film critic Peter Thompson talks to Jane Campion about her directing profession and how it all started.
- Production Gallery (HD) — A still gallery of images.
- Trailer (HD, 2 min.) — The original theatrical trailer is provided.
Jane Campion is a very talented filmmaker and you can see that talent just starting to bubble during 'Sweetie.' It was later unfurled in other films, but Criterion gives us a look into her very early filmmaking career. I can't say I'm the biggest fan of 'Sweetie'. At times the movie seems like it's being weird just for weirdness sake. Criterion has treated this late 80s film well though. The high-def transfer, approved by the director, looks fantastic. The audio shines as well. No audio commentary, which is a bummer when it comes to special features, but the inclusion of Campion's short films sort of makes up for it. Criterion enthusiast will be happy with this release. Recommended.
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