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  Sweet Thing Parental Palaver
Year: 2020
Director: Alexandre Rockwell
Stars: Lana Rockwell, Nico Rockwell, Will Patton, Jabari Watkins, M.L. Josepher, Karyn Parsons, Steven Randazzo
Genre: Drama, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Billie (Lana Rockwell) was named by her father after the singer Billie Holiday, who has become an obsession ever since, to the point where the girl, now fifteen, regards her as her guardian angel and can imagine her looking over her protectively. She needs protection, and so does her little brother Nico (Nico Rockwell), for their mother Eve (Karyn Parsons) left them a while ago so they could be looked after by their ageing father Adam (Will Patton), who scrapes by with demeaning jobs because he cannot get anything better. This is down to him being an alcoholic who quite often spends hours passed out in a drunken stupor, and when he is awake, he is mostly seeking his next bottle. How long can this damaging situation continue, anyway?

Director Alexandre Rockwell kept this movie a family affair, with his two children cast as the protagonists, and their actual mother Parsons as the characters' parent; you may be surprised he did not cast himself as the sozzled father, but one supposes he was pretty busy behind the camera. Shot on 16mm black and white, with occasional bursts of colour for what came across as fantasy sequences yet were possibly not, Rockwell was able to flit between squalor and idyll and make them equally atmospheric, creating a sense of childhood that many would relate to. But there were qualifiers here: not every childhood featured the same amount of peril that Billie and Nico have to face, and the poverty was an important aspect of the overall effect, the plot, too.

We begin around Christmas time where Adam has a job as a Santa Claus, but we can tell he is hopeless at it since he is spending most of his wages on whisky, instead of providing for his kids. Patton was a picture of pathetic, ruined masculinity, his best days behind him and not even bothering to shave most of the time, not because he wanted to grow a beard, either. But as he turns violent - he forces Billie to sit and have her hair cut by him, utterly against her wishes - he does at least supply a little income, which makes his exit from the picture all the more upsetting for the two children. And that is thanks to them having to move in with their disinterested mother, who tolerates them without indicating she has any love for them whatsoever. But worse than that, Eve's boyfriend Beaux (M.L. Josepher) proves less a father figure, more a threat, both violently and sexually abusively.

We can see where this is going, though that may be because the poster design featured the children wandering free through a forest railway line in a devil-may-care fashion, accompanied by new pal Malik (Jabari Watkins) to make a trio of runaways, doing their best to avoid adults and living hand to mouth as they have to settle on what they can scavenge. But this is practically the third and last act, for we have been watching their pair of home lives deteriorating for longer than many filmmakers would have bothered with, and Rockwell was unafraid to place his offspring in perilous (fictional) situations that someone with less confidence may have preferred not to focus on as much as he did. It certainly made the film distinctive, though more of a kids' film for adults than a kids' film for kids, as responsible adults could discern where the problems were lying, though either audience would be willing Billie and Nico to get to some semblance of safety. It was not gritty, exactly, as the camerawork offered a weirdly fairy tale tone to the adventures, if you could call them that, but neither did it shy away from the dangers the characters faced, or created, with the conclusion about the best you could hope for under the circumstances.

[Eureka's Montage brand release this on Blu-ray with these features:

1080p presentation on Blu-ray | DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio | Optional English subtitles | PLUS: A LIMITED EDITION Collector's Booklet featuring an essay on the film by film writer Jason Wood [First Print Run ONLY].]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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