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Sweetie (1989)


Kay (Karen Colston) and Sweetie (Geneviève Lemon) are sisters, although Kay wishes they weren’t. Kay is shy, superstitious and sexually repressed. Sweetie is loud, slovenly and quite possibly mentally ill. Her arrival, with a junkie boyfriend (Michael Lake), disrupts Kay’s attempts to live a normal life with her new boyfriend Louis (Tom Lycos). Things get worse when Kay’s father Gordon arrives (Jon Darling), after his wife (Dorothy Barry) has left him. The closer they all are to each other, the quicker they start to fall apart.

Curator’s notes

Sweetie was Jane Campion’s first feature film after a series of prestigious shorts and it continued her development of a quirky personal style. It didn’t look like any other Australian films of the late 1980s, and it was more than odd in its concerns. Campion’s later films gave us a series of troubled women whom the rest of the world thought mad (in The Piano and Angel at My Table), but in Sweetie, everyone really is mad, or close to.

The film lays out a continuum of oddness, from the gregarious little boy next door who hurls himself into a tiny rubber pool, to Sweetie’s full-on raving episodes, which may or may not be truly psychotic. Much of the trouble in the family seems to be psychosexual, stemming from the father. There may have been incest, which might explain Sweetie’s hostility towards him, and Kay’s sexual timidity – but Campion never makes it too clear. Ambiguity is her preferred method, and Sweetie works superbly as a destabilised narrative because of it. It’s not just the framing, the odd angles, the wide lenses – it’s the free approach to storytelling, as in the strange and lyrical outback scenes, when Kay, Louis and Gordon take off in the car to get away from Sweetie. On an outback station where Kay’s mother Flo (Dorothy Barry) is a cook, Campion gives us a series of short scenes that suggest a whole different life is possible for these characters – this is a place where people sing and dance, and swim in beautiful rivers. It’s still another weird existence, and it doesn’t suit everyone, but it does suit the women in the story. In Campion’s films, a central question is always about where a woman can finally be happy, and herself.