Jane Campion's 1989 feature debut holds up as a terrifying but empathetic portrait of severe mental illness. Info
Some of the more powerful films about mental illness are the ones that drag the viewer kicking and screaming along with the protagonist, like Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell (2019), to name a recent standout. Such films make viewers feel suffocated, claustrophobic, emotionally exhausted, and unprepared for the sheer depths of emptiness and trauma to come, creating empathy for the effects of untreated suffering. Jane Campion’s directorial debut, Sweetie (1989), is a searing example of such a film, capturing the anguish a severe mental illness inflicts upon not just its title character but also upon a whole family.
The title character's long-suffering sister Kay (Karen Colston) believes it is written in the heavens that she is destined to be with Louis (Tom Lycos), although he is currently engaged to one of her co-workers. He plants a fledgling elder tree in their yard as a symbol of their one-year anniversary, which is the first harbinger of the insanity to come. Then Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon) arrives, bringing along her boyfriend (Michael Lake), all the while nurturing a dream of breaking into the entertainment business. She is devoid of talent, but no one would dare to tell her that to her face. Sweetie proceeds to send everyone into an emotional maelstrom, as her family continues to do what they have always done to try and patch her together. In a scene where Sweetie chomps down on her sister’s beloved porcelain horses, the madness takes a similar biting grip on the viewer. You want nothing more than for her to leave her sister’s orbit, but Campion has created a world where Sweetie cannot let anything escape from her gravitational pull.
Lemon gives an absolutely stirring performance as Sweetie, creating a character at once loathsome and sympathetic. In the film's most horrific moments, you have to remind yourself of how ill she is to continue to see the humanity in her. You see the patterns of her family all playing the same role they always have and how they enable her, but also care for her deeply. Watching the slow, gripping tendrils of Sweetie's creeping mental illness strangling her sister and family and killing their relationships is also a reminder of the formidable directorial skill Campion wielded even early in her career. —Edwanike Harbour