TIFF22 REVIEW: Sweet As [2023]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 87 minutes
    Release Date: 2023 (Australia)
    Director(s): Jub Clerc
    Writer(s): Jub Clerc & Steve Rodgers

Maybe we have a story.

It didn’t take long after watching Jub Clerc‘s Sweet As to see the comparison point my mind went to first (The Breakfast Club) was hardly an original thought. It’s an archetypal coming-of-age story for a reason. You see a mixed-bag group of troubled teens forced to confront their hardships during a mandated supervised excursion and allusions to John Hughes‘ classic aren’t far behind. Whereas he could get away with making that group consist of white suburban kids with differing degrees of entitlement and affluence, however, today’s landscape needs a bit more complexity beyond chip-on-your-shoulder bullying. By setting their film in the Australian Outback, Clerc and co-writer Steve Rodgers talk about race, poverty, and exploitation atop that superficial baseline. Because these kids aren’t confronting privilege. They’re struggling to survive.

There’s a reason Murra (Shantae Barnes-Cowan) comes home and pushes her cabinet in front of her room’s door. Whether her mother (Ngaire Pigram‘s Grace) is in a good place that morning or not, the chance she’ll have unsavory characters arriving to try and get into her bed is never low enough not to be prepared. That’s how often it’s been attempted and how little trust Murra can afford to hold. Does she still hope to be able to give her mother the benefit of the doubt? Sure. If Grace is too drunk to see reason or care about anyone but herself, however, the teen has no choice but to call her policeman uncle (Mark Coles Smith‘s Ian) for safety. Feeling invisible shifts into literally being alone.

Ian doesn’t therefore call in a favor to get Murra into a photography camping retreat to push off responsibility. He’d take care of her if her justifiable stubbornness stemming from those feelings of isolation didn’t prevent her from confusing empathy for pity. Not only will Mitch (Tasma Walton) and Fernando’s (Carlos Sanson Jr.) adventure get Murra out of town for seven days, but it should also provide her a distraction from wondering where her mother has gone or whether she’ll come back this time. Noble intentions or not, though, the optics remain tough to swallow considering the other kids coming along for the ride. It’s easy to steel oneself into thinking you don’t belong. That you aren’t suffering like them. We want to pretend we’re fine.

The only person who might fool anyone is Elvis (Pedrea Jackson) thanks to a perpetual smile, overly enthusiastic demeanor, and a quick reversion to politeness when things inevitably get out of hand. Because he’s on this detention-like trip, however, we know there’s more to his story. No one is that chipper without hiding something they hope no one will see. Maybe it won’t be as bad as Sean (Andrew Wallace) and his debilitating depression causing suicidal ideation, but that doesn’t make him any less in need of compassion and camaraderie. The same goes with Kylie (Mikayla Levy) and her aggressive personality feigning autonomy while beholden to an oppressively controlling and much older boyfriend. This trip is first and foremost an escape from the daily nightmares of their lives.

Finding solace becomes a bonus—one that’s hard fought even for those who embrace the chance instead of indignantly brushing it aside. And Mitch and Fernando aren’t messing around. They know they are taking on a quartet of unpredictable kids. They know they will have their work cut out for them to maintain the level of respect necessary to gain trust. It’s why they split into a sort of good cop / bad cop vibe with Fernando’s unapologetic love for photography leading him to cheerlead the group while Mitch’s no-nonsense attitude tries to keep them in line. Kylie enjoys testing their boundaries (objectifying him and calling her a “ball-buster”) while the others bide their time to suss out the overall dynamic in their own unique ways.

Murra is the focus—an aboriginal girl who finds herself in a world of men that either what to sexually assault her or verbally abuse her when given the chance. So, it’s no surprise that Fernando’s kindness proves confusing. She’s not used to someone actually paying attention. Jealousy isn’t therefore far behind. Neither is opportunism. She and the others are in uncharted territory here with cellphones confiscated and a modicum of freedom that they obviously overstep the first chance they get. All of them are used to having to fend for themselves, so they don’t think twice when selfishness appears the best avenue to getting what they desire. Only when they realize they can rely on each other to achieve those goals do they see their true potential.

It’s here in the wilderness that Murra and Elvis have the upper hand. This is their world as aboriginals, and they never forget what they owe their ancestors even if they’re struggling to exist in their skin at the present. Some of the best moments in Sweet As are the ones where they and Mitch show the others their customs with nature and their ability to live off the land. It’s only one part of their stories, though. It’s just the surface. The key to Fernando’s lessons is to look deeper and connect beyond stereotype, prejudices, and preconceptions. Maybe that education starts with a camera lens serving as the door beyond convention, but, by the end, they are doing it simply by acknowledging their mutual humanity and self-worth.

Clerc presents their journey towards enlightenment with a welcome authenticity by never judging her characters or dismissing their fallibilities. These kids are harboring a wealth of rage and emotions. They are powder kegs ready to explode and they often do. Rather than have Mitch and Fernando meet them in-kind, however, their ability to know when to say something and when to simply let these teens feel what they feel is inspirational. Because they want a reaction. They want to be “proven right” when it comes to adults always letting them down. By not giving into that impulse, these teens have no choice but to see when they are letting each other down themselves. That they have the power to hold each other up when no one else will.

courtesy of TIFF

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