By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: Sister is mentally ill.
Kay (Karen Colston) has begun a relationship with Louis (Tom Lycos) and things seem to be going smoothly as they move into a home together, but it quickly unravels when he sister Dawn ‘Sweetie’ (Genevieve Lemon) shows up with her boyfriend Bob (Michael Lake). Sweetie has been institutionalized in the past and her wild mood swings and erratic behavior quickly cause turmoil particularly with Kay. She asks her parents (Jon Darling, Dorothy Barry) for help, but her dad refuses to recognize Sweetie’s tragic current state and instead continually hearkens back to her childhood years when she was a cute kid with budding talent who would perform songs and dances to the family’s entertainment and delight.
This is a hard film to critique as it starts off as a quirky comedy, but by the midpoint it becomes more dramatic and filled with a lot of uncomfortable even cringe worthy scenes as Sweetie’s mental decline becomes achingly apparent. Not only do you feel sad for her, but also for how it causes such a severe strain for the rest of her family, which accurately illustrates how mental illness isn’t just a one person issue as their behaviors will adversely affect those around them too.
The fact that the film’s tone switches halfway through, which would be considered a major no-no by Hollywood standards, is part of the reason why it works as it replicates real-life where sometimes you can have a touching, humorous moment only to suddenly get thrown into a troubling one. This also shapes what life is like living with a mentally-ill individuals who may seem ‘okay’, but can turn erratic sometimes without warning and this ongoing tension vividly comes through for the viewer until they feel the same way as the characters.
I found the father though to be the most entertaining and interesting. One minute he’s scheming to get Sweetie out of the family car, so they can leave on a trip without her and then the next minute he’s driving back to pick-her-up, so they can be ‘one happy family’ again. While this may sound overly contradictory to some I felt it brought out the inner turmoil many parents feel in dealing with their grown children where at times they can’t stand them, for whatever reason, but at other points can’t stand to be without them either.
Director Jane Campion, in her feature film directorial debut, adds in interesting touches like having the camera frame the characters off-center where instead of seeing them captured in the center of the screen they are shown in the right-hand corner, which helps accentuate the tone of the subject matter. There’s also an odd time-lapsed cutaways detailing a seedling tree pushing its way through the dirt and above ground, which wasn’t exactly necessary to the main plot, but kind of cool nonetheless.
Campion also wisely doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence with pat answers to a complex problem. Mental illness cannot be cured or even always stabilized with medications, so leaving the viewer with a feel-good ending where everything works out and everybody is happy would be a cop-out and thankfully gets avoided here. Instead the we’re left pondering troubling questions, which stays with you long after it’s over and makes this a far better movie than most because of it.
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: September 28, 1989
Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes
Director: Jane Campion
Studio: Filmpac Distribution
Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Criterion Collection), Amazon Video