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With: Geneviève Lemon, Karen Colston, Tom Lycos, Jon Darling, Dorothy Barry, Michael Lake, Andre Pataczek
Written by: Jane Campion, Gerard Lee
Directed by: Jane Campion
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 97
Date: 09/10/1989

Sweetie (1989)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Sister Cracked

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of only three women to be nominated for a Best Director Academy Award, Jane Campion has, in her 20-year career, completed only six feature films (as well as the wonderful, made-for-TV feature Two Friends, from 1986). Yet she is already due for reconsideration. Over those six films, she has moved from indie queen (Sweetie, An Angel at My Table) to mainstream acceptance (The Piano, The Portrait of a Lady) to bizarre outsider (Holy Smoke, In the Cut).

Campion's main problem -- and at the same time, her strength -- is that she's better at the essence of cinema than she is at storytelling. She can set up any individual shot for maximum emotional impact, and so there's something quite extraordinary going on at every moment in time, even if the big picture doesn't quite add up.

As proof, the Criterion Collection has released Sweetie on a gorgeous new DVD, available for the first time in years. Sweetie has the benefit of not actually relying on any kind of setup/conclusion-type plot, and so Campion is free to do as she pleases. Accompanied by cinematographer Sally Bongers, Campion finds geometric patterns in every shot, whether it's a pole or a beam slanting through the shot, or even a human figure doing handstands or balancing on a chair.

The story introduces us to Kay (Karen Colston), an upright, superstitious girl; she steals a co-worker's fiancée because she believes they were fated to be together. But Kay has a fear of trees (the roots have a tendency to grow under houses and destroy things), and so when her lover plants a tree in her backyard, trouble begins. At the exact wrong moment, Kay's polar opposite sister, Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon) suddenly appears at her doorstep (or, more appropriately, in her bedroom).

Rotund and highly sensuous, Sweetie believes she's destined for showbiz and already behaves like a prima donna. The sisters' clash reaches a high pitch of hysteria when their parents suddenly split up.

This plot takes Kay on road trips and back again, but it doesn't really matter what's going on or where anyone is. Campion has no shortage of startling, wondrous imagery, such as Kay's prized collection of miniature horses or Sweetie's tree house, adorned with Christmas lights. Likewise, the director manages to sustain the film's quirky emotional tone, much more important than sustaining a plot; if we believe in the characters, we'll follow them anywhere.

The Criterion Collection's 2006 DVD comes with a commentary track, interviews and other goodies, but most importantly, it comes with three early Campion short films, just as good as Sweetie. They are: Peel (1982), Passionless Moments (1983) and A Girl's Own Story (1984). In 2011, Criterion released a complimentary Blu-Ray, with all the same extras.

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