Time tugs strangely on the sleeve of “Sweet Thing,” a heartfelt, hopeful yet slightly hollow black-and-white coming-of-ager from American indie stalwart Alexandre Rockwell (“In the Soup,” “Pete Smalls Is Dead”). A lively, bittersweet meditation on an impoverished childhood that is still rich in innocence and imagination, it feels old-fashioned in a way that does not quite gel with its bid for contemporary grit. In form too, it feels more like a quaint reminder of Rockwell’s early-’90s heyday than a product of our modern times. With verve and vitality it pays a dreamy-eyed retrospective debt to films past, and largely due to the beguiling performance from Rockwell’s own daughter Lana, ultimately delivers a moving, tousled journey of discovery — but it’s through an America that has not existed for decades, if it ever did.
Lana Rockwell plays Billie, the daughter of unreliable, alcoholic but loving Adam (a terrific Will Patton) and older sister to Nico (Nico Rockwell, the director’s son). Billie, a talented aspiring singer, was named after Billie Holliday, whom she sees guiding her in occasional technicolor dream sequences. Such guidance and emotional support is necessary: her mother (Karyn Parsons, Rockwell’s wife), inevitably named Eve to their father’s Adam in one of the modest screenplay’s more grandiose flourishes, has left the family to be with her boorish, controlling, abusive beau Beaux (ML Josepher). Adam is ineffectual even when (rarely) sober, and Nico is too young to be independent, so Billie ends up the de facto caregiver for her father and brother.
Adam veers between tenderness and tyranny with respect to his children in a fairly accurate simulation of the erratic mania of alcoholism. One moment he is gifting Billie a cheap ukulele for Christmas, the next he is dragging her into the bathroom and cutting her gorgeous hair off as some obscure punishment, and the next he’s mumbling with the maudlin sincerity of the very drunk “You’re the only good thing that I ever did.” But to be her father’s sole salvation is too much pressure to put on any young girl, in addition to the everyday responsibilities she’s shouldering.
When Adam, who has been earning casual money as a Santa-for-hire, gets arrested and sent to rehab to dry out, the kids have to go to live with Eve and Beaux, where they befriend similarly lost and drifting teen Malik (an endearing Jabari Watkins), who is introduced to us in a burst of color and sparks that looks directly lifted from Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” But when Beaux (also a drinker, but just a “different type of drinking,” as Billie notes in her world-weary voiceover) turns sexually predatory toward Nico, Eve refuses to believe Billie when she raises the alarm (“You are not going to ruin the good thing I got going here”). The three kids run off in a stolen car, aiming for Florida, where Malik’s absentee father lives, and the film morphs into a road movie.
There is little real sense of place — set in New Bedford, Mass., it really could play out in a depressed American Anywheresville. And there’s even less sense of era — Rockwell seems almost nostalgic for a kind of analog poverty, when cellphone-less ragamuffin children mucked about in junkyards and got themselves into puckish scrapes trying to grift a dollar or two from crusty old caretaker types.
But while it’s misty-eyed about period, “Sweet Thing” is subtly sharp on the kind of generalized misery absorbed by the children of alcoholic parents, and quietly perceptive on race. Blackness is not a foregrounded theme, but it is foundational to this story of marginalization, and referred to obliquely, often through signifiers like hair. Lana’s fabulous curls which blow and bounce into the lens of Lasse Tolbøll’s lovely, mobile, intimate camerawork are practically a character in their own right: Even before the quasi-biblical hair-cutting scene, we see Billie’s guardian angel namesake helping her to tame their wildness, and Nico’s shearing of his own bleached curls in solidarity is a touching brotherly moment that also marks a symbolic rite of passage. The kids’ hair is a reminder of their mother, although Eve ironically covers hers with a straight, blonde wig in a literal suppression of her “real” self. All are contrasted with Malik’s defiantly unprimped afro. The character most at home in his own skin is of course most at home in his natural hair.
Rockwell’s filmmaking is direct and sincere, though adorned with slightly twee iris-outs and occasional, randomly applied scribbly subtitles. But mostly the feeling, appropriate for this family affair, is of fondness and familiarity. From its scrappy, make-do-and-mend attitude to the way it tips its hat to everything from “Badlands” (cheekily using the Carl Orff signature track) to “Stand By Me,” the windswept, wild-maned “Sweet Thing” boasts beautiful performances and a definite throwback charm — just not always for the reasons intended.