Runtime: 87 minutes
Directed by Jub Clerc
Written by Jub Clerc and Steve Rodgers
Actors: Shantae Barnes-Cowan, Ngaire Pigram, Mark Coles Smith, Tasma Walton, Carlos Sanson Jr., Andrew Wallace, Pedrea Jackson, Mikayla Levy
By Sarah Manvel
Most movies about teenagers get it wrong. Either the teens are treated like little kids, behaving perfectly and being perfectly cared for, or they are treated like adults, people capable of perfect understanding of the world around them who never make mistakes. There are very few movies about teenagers where the teenagers act exactly like that: infuriating, clever, sarcastic, kind, rowdy, sensation-seeking, unable to think their actions through, and not necessarily able to explain why they act the way they do. This Australian movie brings an Australian frankness to the subject of growing up, specifically by showing how a photography safari changes how a young Indigenous woman sees the world. It’s a thoughtful, charming movie that doesn’t skimp on the adult problems but still lets its kids be kids.
Murra (Shantae Barnes-Cowan) has a tough home life, with an alcoholic mother (Ngaire Pigram) who parties so hard Murra’s safety is an afterthought. After a situation gets out of hand, Murra’s mother abandons her to stay with her Uncle Ian (Mark Coles Smith), a kind policeman, but it’s still pretty upsetting. As Murra begins to act out, Ian is able to find her a place on a week-long photographic safari for teens at risk. It’s run by the level-headed counsellor Mitch (Tasma Walton), who drives the bus, and the dreamy photographer Fernando (Carlos Sanson Jr), the sight of whom suddenly means Murra’s delighted about the trip. The other kids are the suicidal Sean (Andrew Wallace), the traumatized Elvis (Pedrea Jackson) and the promiscuous Kylie (Mikayla Levy). The hope is a few days of camping in the outback and learning how to use an old-school camera, with no mobiles, will help everyone feel a little better and maybe even grow up a little.
Director Jub Clerc, who co-wrote the script with Steve Rodgers, was open at the Berlinale about how the movie is semi-autobiographical. This means the teenage melodrama rings extremely true, as do the mood swings and the ways in which the relationships between the kids ebb and flow, shifting on a dime between cheery solidarity and vicious insults. Murra and Kylie do not like each other, but they’re also oddly on the same team, especially when they convince some gross older men to buy them beer. Kylie has a secret mobile, so her controlling older boyfriend can keep tabs on her, but Murra doesn’t snitch. That doesn’t mean she appreciates Kylie teasing her for being a virgin, though they all tease Sean, who’s never been kissed. Elvis has the most outback experience, but also the most obvious trauma, and the way in which the other kids respect all that – or don’t – is a sharp reminder that these teenagers are still children. As the counsellor, Mitch has her work cut out. The performances, especially those of Miss Barnes-Cowan and Mr Jackson all capture that hideously anxious time when mistakes start having permanent consequences, though teenagers only know that because the adults won’t shut up about it.
Katie Milwright’s cinematography makes the most of the gorgeous outback locations, and also makes sure we see every image that Murra chooses to capture with her cameras. The way in which Fernando is bursting with enthusiasm for photography helps transmit the ideas that you can control what you focus on. Mr Sanson is obviously a sweetheart, perfect for everyone’s first crush, and Fernando a good listener as well as a teacher. When Murra behaves inappropriately his reaction is everything you’d want. The world is changing, and the ways in which our young people must grow up able to deal with it is as important a subject as it gets. “Sweet As” makes sure it knows the importance, but has plenty of fun along the way. This movie is a safe pair of hands, though if it gets a US release it will almost certainly be rated R, thanks to some ‘robust’ language and the pervasive themes of trauma, but there’s nothing here that high schoolers haven’t already encountered. Well, perhaps the land acknowledgement at the start, which is only the second one this critic has ever seen. But at the screening this critic attended there were several groups of unsupervised thirteen-year-olds who were riveted throughout. For a family movie there’s no higher recommendation.