Director Alexandre Rockwell’s achingly lovely “Sweet Thing” takes place on the cusp between adolescence and adulthood, with its child stars attempting to navigate a grown-up world and dangers they don’t quite understand yet. The film follows three miniature fugitives fleeing their abusive home lives on an adventure across the rusted industrial seaside of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Shot on stunning, super-high-contrast 16 mm black-and-white, with occasional color inserts matching the faded hues of memory, the movie presents a kid’s-eye perspective of endless possibility and wonder, in which every landscape looks like a cross between a junkyard and a playground. It’s also got a child’s attention span, leaping out of scenes erratically, leaving traumas unprocessed until later. This is the kind of movie that you want to hold dear, even when it’s being as messy and mood-swingy as one of the kids it chronicles.
The film is a family affair for the Rockwells, with the director’s daughter Lana starring as 15-year-old Billie, stuck looking after her rambunctious 11-year-old brother Nico (played by Lana’s real-life little sibling of the same name) in a ramshackle house while their single dad is out either working or drinking, usually the latter. Played by the great character actor Will Patton, he’s a boozy, bus depot Santa and professional sign-twirler who can shift in a sip between blubbery affection and scary indifference toward his kids. He’s not a bad man, but he’s floundering. When Dad gets locked up again and hauled off to rehab, the children are sent to live with their screechy, selfish mother (played by the performers’ own mom, Rockwell’s wife Karyn Parsons, who you probably remember as cousin Hilary from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”) She’s got what she thinks is a good thing going with a new beau named Beaux, and right away from his muscle car, weightlifter pants and American flag tank top we can tell this dude is bad news.
Billie and Nico befriend their new neighbor, Malik (the effortlessly endearing Jabari Watkins), a wild-haired, wild child who smokes weed and knows how to hotwire cars. When Beaux does something very bad it’s Malik who rides in to the rescue, and before we know it, the kids are off on the run, hiding out in every nook and cranny of New Bedford, from the McMansions to the trailer parks. There’s a timeless quality to their escapades, as if the movie were taking place both 50 years ago and yesterday at the same time. At the journey’s outset, Malik hurls Billie’s cellphone into the sea, and as the children travel along these overgrown railroad tracks making mischief, the echoes of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn grow louder than the din of the modern world. But the times have a way of catching up with us, alas. It’s called coming of age.
The trippy, temporal funk extends to the filmmaking, which Rockwell carries off with his characteristic mix of 1960s European arthouse classics and the early ‘90s American independent explosion that served as the director’s short-lived heyday. “Sweet Thing” is kiddingly billed as “a film by Aldopho Rollo,” a cheeky reference to the pretentious wannabe filmmaker played by Steve Buscemi in Rockwell’s 1992 Sundance smash “In the Soup.” As befitting a movie made by an NYU film school professor, here he’s quoting everything from “Badlands” to “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the swirl of cross-cultural allusions complementing the picture's charmingly cluttered, thrift shop aesthetic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie jam so many clashing prints, plaids, camouflage pants and garish wallpaper patterns into such crowded frames. In color, “Sweet Thing” would probably be unbearable to look at, but thanks to cinematographer Lasse Ulvedal Tolbøll’s gorgeously grainy monochrome, the visual chaos becomes almost musical in its textures.
At the calm center of it all is Lana Rockwell’s star-making performance as Billie. She’s got one of those faces the camera adores, with watchful eyes and an explosion of untamed curls atop her head stealing scenes from even the film’s veteran performers. Hair is no small signifier in “Sweet Thing,” as when the trimming of Billie’s locks in an early punishment from her drunken dad prompts little Nico to lop off his own blonde tresses in solidarity. Malik’s natural hair is a symbol of his renegade spirit, while the children’s mom notably keeps hers hidden under a blonde wig at Beaux’s behest.
The eclectic soundtrack keeps circling back to Billie’s soothing voice singing the Van Morrison song from which the film takes its title. (It’s so vital to the movie that Rockwell mounted a Kickstarter campaign just to pay for the rights.) Caught between innocence and experience as the closing credits roll, Billie promises “I will never, never, never grow so old again.”
“Sweet Thing” starts streaming in virtual cinemas this Friday, June 18.