Directed by Jub Clerc, ‘Sweet As’ is a 2022 coming-of-age film with its international premiere at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. We witness the journeys of different young adults on a rejuvenating trip, hoping to get a fresh start. The one at the center of the film’s narrative is that of a 15-year-old Indigenous girl named Murra (played by Shantae Barnes-Cowan), who is trying to get beyond her chaotic present circumstances to carve a new identity for herself. Her hopes and dreams are more significant than what her party-loving mother offers her. The story is of the same quest to escape the instability.
The film begins with a scene that expresses the distress between Murra and her mother. While sharing the roof, they don’t seem to share the idea of how to lead their lives. Mother seems engulfed in her party in their living room, which disturbs her, and their resulting argument conveys that she is used to this routine, her mother’s irresponsible behavior. Throwing away her life in such indulgences makes no sense for her and puts her constantly seeking a semblance of home and a normal routine. She seeks refuge at her uncle’s place, who understands her and knows how to calm her bursts of anger. He decides to make her go on a week-long excursion that he hopes to be fruitful for her to reinvent herself effectively.
On this excursion, she is accompanied by three other young adults her age fighting their own battles. Sean (Andrew Wallace), Kylie (Mikayla Levy), and Elvis (Pedrea Jackson) are her compadres who are referred to as the troubled youth. They go travel in the sparsely populated countryside of Western Australia and get away from their daily routine. Their traumas reveal themselves with time, and the process of bonding occurs naturally between them; and, their troubles make them empathize with one another and be more open to their scope of betterment; and, their hope for their wellness derives from this exercise that proves fruitful for them, in one way or the other.
With Murra, what transpires is not just an act of letting go of her past, shading the leaves of the worries that cloud her thought process and stagnate her growth. The narrative is also about an innocent love brewing in the background that shows her the emotions she is capable of feeling. ‘How do you know that you’re in love?’ – she asks Kylie something along the same lines. The film explores the sheer innocence of discovering different parts of yourself while reinventing your personality with genuine interest and compassion towards such a process. Who knew that an act of showing a human being as human enough would be so impactful? But that’s what ‘Sweet As’ achieves with its tiny gestures that the film highlights through the direction. Especially a coming-of-age tale involving someone of her identity becomes refreshing and uplifting by its very existence.
Despite that, what doesn’t work in the film is due to its over-reliance on genre tropes without digging deeper into any of the characters. What we get to see seems like mere representations of the kind of stories that need to be brought to the table. You meet a suicidal teen, a young woman trying to break past her toxic relationship, and a guy from the native community who is getting over a traumatic incident from his recent past. The film doesn’t explore any of these arcs enough. Beyond the mentions of these conflicts in their lives, we learn hardly anything from their past. While it shares a few heartfelt moments of connection experienced by them, their characters are not developed enough. They make a momentary impact but become largely forgettable.
When we look at Murra’s journey through the film, we see a conventional narrative arc led for her with only rare moments where the rootedness becomes visible. We witness nothing unique or specific about her journey, which keeps the film from soaring high. The bits of self-exploration also fail to be anything but tropes.
The directorial style that lets the breeziness of its breezy moments settle in and works on the ability of the performers is undoubtedly impressive. The cinematography by Katie Milwright captures these bits of sheer performance to bring out the emotional resonance. Yet, the conventional modes of narration bring the film down to a rather forgettable affair.