M, 88 minutes

4 Stars


Review by @ Jane Freebury

The first frames of Sweet As are tough. It opens on an Indigenous teenager shoplifting then returning home to barricade herself in her room for a meal of dry instant noodles while her mother hosts a boozy, blokey party. Things are on the brink of a serious turn for the worse for this 16-year-old.

Luckily for her, there are other family around who have overlook, besides the troubled single mother. A young policeman, Ian (Mark Coles Smith of recent Mystery Road Origin fame), arrives on the scene, taking Murra (Shantae Barnes-Cowan) away to safety, but not before the girl’s mother, Grace (Ngaire Pigram), has driven off too. Clearing out when things get complicated has been something she’s been prone to all along.

Were it not for the issues that make Murra’s life hell, home might have been a pretty cool place. A cottage painted in the vibrant colours of the region, turquoise blue and burnt orange, with a scarlet bougainvillea out front, and the sea on one side and the road out on the other. Sweet As is set in the remote Pilbara of western Australia, a region where the filmmaker, Jub Clerc, grew up. The highlight of its astounding landscapes captured by cinematographer  Katie Milwright, is beautiful Karijini Gorge.

Sweet As is inspired by Clerc’s own experiences as an at-risk Indigenous adolescent growing up between Broome and Port Hedland.

At a critical point in her young life, the director was sent on a ‘photo safari’ too

After a camera was put into her hands, it changed her life. This first feature film, after working in the industry on various projects, was invited to film festivals around Australia last year, and became the first Australian feature to win an award for Asian cinema at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film’s screenplay is a collaboration between Clerc and Steve Rodgers.

Despite the risks she faces, Murra doesn’t welcome a change when Ian, an uncle in this region where everyone is related, intervenes. He signs her up for a seven-day field trip in the Pilbara with three other teens who are also at-risk. It’s a mixed-race combo of family dysfunction that is sketched in as each of the teenagers are dropped off at the bus, and into the charge of Mitch (Tasma Walton) and Fernando, the volunteer team leaders.

The first thing they must do is hand in their mobile phones. In exchange they are each given a camera, with instructions from stills photography expert Fernando (Carlos Sanson Jr) to take the time to capture images that tell a story. Early on, Murra steals a shot of Fernando that she inscribes with the caption ‘Luberly Thing’. Her attraction for the Nicaraguan-born outsider is one of the running themes that drives the narrative.

Barnes-Cowan, whose credits include the terrific TV series Total Control, is strong and persuasive in her lead role here, conveying much with a stern look and a light touch. She and the other young actors bring a touching authenticity to their characters, struggling with various painful kinds of angst. Like the relationship that Mikayla Levy’s Kylie has with an older man who may be her mother’s partner or lover, and the demons that Andrew Wallace’s Sean is dealing with. The playful, party persona of Pedrea Jackson’s Elvis obviously masks trauma too.

The risks out-of-control kids run are referenced, but never followed through, in this tender, hopeful story

Along the way, when Murra manages to get a passing construction worker to buy her cheap cask wine, it’s clear she has done that kind of thing before. Fuelled with goon, the kids leave Mitch and Fernando behind at their motel and run riot at some local parks and swimming pool, before the hi-jinks begin to put the girls in jeopardy.

As payback for their mischief, the team leaders drive off without warning, leaving the teens alone for a day and night, forcing them to draw on their survival and teamwork skills to pull through. And, of course, they do.

It may sound predictable, and the upward inflection at the end may seem a stretch in a region blighted with youth and community issues, however a fresh and assured perspective that takes audiences on a road trip through the magnificent North-West has its place too.

First published in the Canberra Times on 2 June 2023. Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes