SWEET AS – Review by Nadine Whitney

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Jub Clerc’s feature debut Sweet As is already a milestone film in Australian cinema. It is the first Western Australian film to be directed by an indigenous person. It has also had the honour of showing at major festivals in Australia and outside of the country, including TIFF where it won the NETPAC award and Berlinale.

To give context to Sweet As, it is important to note that it is inspired by Clerc’s own story, and she is credited as the screenwriter in conjunction with Steve Rodgers. The Nyul Nyul/Yawuru filmmaker travelled on a photo safari for at-risk teens in the 1980s which ignited her passion for visual storytelling. Set in Western Australia in the Pilbara region (a northern and sparsely populated part of the state) Clerc updates her story for a contemporary audience and uses her own experience to craft a deft and affecting coming-of-age story for her protagonist, Murra (Shantae Barnes-Cowan) that honours Clerc’s first nations heritage and the importance of country to Aboriginal people.

For Aboriginal people, country is not just the place in which they live. It is a complete entity that covers all living things – the collection of animals, plants, and people that live there. These connections include seasons, creation spirits, and heritage. Country forms part of the spiritual belief for many First Nations people. To connect with country is to connect with the ancestors.

Murra is close to ending up in the care of Child Protection Services. Her mother, Grace (Ngaire Pigram) has issues with addiction and has often abandoned the fifteen-year-old for extended periods. After a particularly unpleasant encounter with a man who tries to break into Murra’s bedroom at one of Grace’s parties, Murra calls her uncle Ian (Mark Coles Smith) a local cop to come break up the party and get her out of there. Grace drives away and Murra doesn’t know when she will see her again.

Ian has a spare room for Murra at his house. From the decorations in the room, it is clear that Murra has spent years living on and off with her uncle. Murra is resilient and tough as nails, but also deeply vulnerable. When she finds out that Ian has booked her a trip on a minibus with other at-risk kids, she is reluctant to go. The trip, which is a photo safari will take the group to some of the distant and sacred areas of the Pilbara. Ian hopes that Murra will make friends with the other kids and perhaps find a purpose that goes beyond surviving every day.

Other kids on the trip include the general troublemaker, Kylie (Mikayla Levy) who has a controlling and much older boyfriendm the suicidal Sean (Andrew Wallace) whose loneliness and vulnerability is as marked as his intelligence, and finally, the irrepressible Elvis (Pedrea Jackson) whose inclusion on the trip is not understood by the audience until it is devastatingly revealed.

The no nonsense Mitch (Tasma Walton) and Nicaraguan refugee and photography enthusiast, Nando (Carlos Sanson Jr.) are the caretakers for the teens. They take away their phones and put cameras in their hands. They want the young people to find their story and their voice using photography. They also want them to connect with the natural environment.

Initially the group don’t get along (except for Elvis who seems to get on with everyone). Differences in backgrounds and difficulties communicating create friction, especially for Murra and Kylie. For both girls there is a sense that rebellion is a way of survival. When given the chance they act up, to the point of getting the other teens drunk. Their actions come with consequences, not only the harsh disapproval of Mitch, but also violent interactions with locals and a near miss with sexual assault. There are predators in Australia but none so deadly as drunken white men who see young women as disposable.

Murra, despite herself, becomes enamoured with the camera. As the bus goes further into the Pilbara she begins seeing the landscape as a metaphor for herself. Cinematographer Katie Milwright captures the unique beauty of the region and further expands on the notion of country. Murra develops a crush on Nando (whom she photographs as ‘Luberly thing’) which leads to her leaving Sean alone in the wilderness. Murra isn’t a perfect protagonist – she’s a flawed and angry young woman.

Comparisons have been made to The Breakfast Club — a group of teens bond over a period of time despite their differences and have a radical new understanding of themselves but these comparisons are surface at best. The Breakfast Club didn’t have the aspect of supportive adults, nor did it have the essential power of country and what that means to Murra, Mitch, and Elvis.

Shantae Barnes-Cowan is dazzling as Murra whose spiky personality and humour coalesce to create an authentic portrait of a young woman who has never properly been seen. Pedrea Jackson is devastating as Elvis. Young, Blak, and Deadly (deadly in this case means awesome) he is upbeat and not cynical. When we find out that he is on the safari because he was almost killed in a racially motivated beating and has been unable to leave his community since, it is a gut punch that speaks to how racism remains in Australia.

Sweet As does veer into cliches at times, but as it is Clerc’s story that is forgivable. All the small tribulations of being a teenager are presented with the deeper issues of being a teen at risk. That the group comes together to form a found family might seem a little on the nose, but it is nonetheless something that happened to Clerc.

The power of art to heal is woven into the power of country, but also the wonder of finding yourself on an unexpected journey is key to Clerc’s film. Murra isn’t the only one who is given a new chance at life – all the teens are. Kylie, Elvis, and Sean all find something to empower them and accept themselves; whether that be a guiding hand out of loneliness, the courage to stand up to an abusive person, or simply the courage to once again walk free.

Sweet As speaks to the revitalising forces of nature but also asks the viewer to acknowledge that the landscape they are looking at has never been ceded to white colonisers. Western Australia’s primary exports comes from mining and the land that is sacred is also a land that is often scarred. Sweet As functions in part as a coming-of-age story but there is a universality to the themes that First Nations people all over the world have been displaced and often live in poverty because their heritage is seen as expendable, especially if their land can yield profit.

As a coda to the film we see Jub Clerc’s own photographs from her trip in the 80s. So many films that are about what sparked a creative’s journey are “portraits of the artist as a young man” (just in the last year we have seen Armageddon Time and The Fabelmans), so few are centred on women and even fewer women of colour. Sweet As is a marvelous and sensitive film that extends its huge heart to most of the characters. Just as Clerc’s journey was a transformative one for her, Sweet As is a transformative journey for the audience.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sweet As played at TIFF 2022, MIFF (where it won an innovation award), BIFF, all in 2022 and was the opening night film for The Melbourne Women in Film Festival 2023. It is currently in competition at the 2023 Berlinale. It has been picked up for Australian distribution by Roadshow.

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney is a seasoned film critic and scholar. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Nadine contributes regularly to FILMINK, The Curb, and Mr Movies Film Blog. She holds a degree in cinema theory and cultural studies. Her specialty is surrealism in cinema. She is as passionate about cats as she is about film. She is co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association and a member of FIPRESCI.