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Criterion / 99 Minutes / 1989 / Unrated / Street Date: 19 April, 2011
Jane Campion is a curious director, indeed. For many - especially American - viewers, the director's success begins and ends with The Piano, a movie that not only showcased a marvelously unique directorial sentiment, but was also a surprise hit. But it turns out that a simple dig deeper into the early Campion pantheon reveals a set of films that each one-ups The Piano in terms of avant-garde construction and histrionic boldness.
An Angel at My Table (1990), Campion's pre-Piano steeping stone is perhaps a bit easier to swallow narratively than Campion's other early work, but this new Criterion Blu-ray edition of Sweetie (1989) definitely proves to be an exercise in provocative, almost disorienting dramatic and emotional storytelling. In constructing the film in her singular way, Campion turns what might be simple, movie-of-the-week drama into piping-hot strangeness.
See, sister Kay (Karen Colston) and her parents live fairly standard lives - work, home, etc. - but Kay's sister, Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon), is a powderkeg, a batshit crazy whirligig of a woman who makes mincemeat of any 'normal' plans the family may have whenever she blitzes into the room. This, of course, unveils some deep family secrets as its discomfort is manifested onscreen - which makes for a revealing audience catharsis at points - but for the most part, Sweetie is about how a dingbat chick drives everyone around her into madness.
Sweetie is nowhere as defined and well-oiled as The Piano, but as a movie that showcases Jane Campion's innate storytelling capabilities, it is definitely notable. Performances are perhaps a bit outrageous at turns, to be sure, but it's violently apparent that this is the way Campion wants it. This idiosyncratic director seems hellbent on shaking things up in Sweetie, and the film's dramatic shape is indeed shaken by film's end: The movie may not be wildly successful on all fronts, but it does what all first features dream of doing - it heralds the eventual coming of a major, undeniable film talent.