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‘Sweetie’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 02, 1990

It's hard to sum up "Sweetie," which happens to be one of the movie's strengths. It could be about the fruitless search for love, or the beauty of abnormality, or the joy of human idiosyncrasy or the grimness of family life. It could just be about the cluttered minds of two sisters who have been wrangling since childhood: quiet, moody Kay and brash, childlike Sweetie.

Whatever this 1989 movie's about, and it certainly includes all of those things, this Australian film by New Zealand director Jane Campion comes at you, and keeps coming at you, in peculiar, oddly enchanting bursts of detail.

Based on the cluttered contents of Campion's personal experiences (she co-scripted with Australian short-story writer Gerard Lee), "Sweetie" not only creates its own hermetically sealed world (a strange place of existentialist lightness and comic darkness) and characters, it invents its own, unrestrained method of storytelling.

There might be a sudden burst of an off-screen, a cappella chorus, singing "Love will never let you fall down," or another oblique camera angle from cinematographer Sally Bongers, making us view events from under a car, a bed or the kitchen table; or an unexpected visual interlude, such as the black-and-white, time-lapse sequence in which saplings burst through the earth in speeded-up motion.

That root-growing scene, by the way, is no cute act of nature, in Campion's eyes. It's another of Kay's tree nightmares. The movie's oddly enchanting central character (despite the title) and relatively sane sister believes trees possess disturbing, human powers. Kay (Karen Colston), after a session with a tea-leaf reader, is also on the romantic alert for a man with a question mark on his forehead.

When she meets Louis (Tom Lycos), whose curly forelock leading to a black spot on his forehead convinces Kay he's her man, the movie follows the affair for a while, then watches it become swiftly uprooted right around the time Louis plants a tree in Kay's backyard.

That's also about the time we meet plump, emotionally mercurial Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon), who camps without warning at Kay's house, her dopey "producer"-boyfriend (Michael Lake) in tow and her untalented, mascara-eyed sights still trained on a performing career. Kay has been harboring a latent resentment towards Sweetie since childhood for getting all the attention from Mum and Dad (Dorothy Barry and Jon Darling) and the enmity soon returns.

"Sweetie" takes all manner of narrative twists and turns. The sisters' parents enter the story when Dad comes to stay (after Mum, who wants to head west where the cowboys croon, kicks him out); Louis says so long ("You're abnormal," he tells Kay, as though he just found this out); and Sweetie's angry side reaches dangerous heights in a treehouse.

The momentum seems to lag in the second part of the picture, as if, after introducing us to her special world, Campion doesn't exactly know where to take us in it. But her unique talent for open-ended exposition remains, as does the movie's innocent sense of grandiosity, its unorthodox belief about itself. Campion, who before this debuting feature made several shorts (one of them, "Peel," won a Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1986), leaves little mysteries about her characters before you, one after the other, figuring that if one doesn't get you, the next one will. She's mostly right.

Perhaps a greater test of Campion will be her creative stamina in the next project. But for now, it's very pleasant to experience the originality and thank the cinematic deities that some filmmakers are still around who like to do things differently.

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