From the opening credits of Sweetie, a pretty, witty, disturbing film from Australia by first-time feature director Jane Campion, we know there’s going to be trouble. It might be the singsong voice-over by Kay (Karen Colston) in which she discusses her younger sister, Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon) — their daddy’s princess — and Kay’s own dread of trees. Or it might be the scenes in which oddball, doe-eyed Kay consults a tea-leaf reader for romantic advice and then goes out to get her man, a well-meaning bloke named Louis (Tom Lycos).
When Sweetie herself finally bursts on the scene — all bulging bodice, laddered stockings, and pointy boots, and toting a junked-up ”producer” she hopes will launch her entertainment career — trouble’s here to stay. Kay’s muddle comes to seem a reasonable response to a dysfunctional family, played by a superb cast of relative unknowns. The director owes something to David Lynch: Her striking eye and sense of play often overwhelm the narrative. Campion loves to transform the banal into the surreal, as in the scene with loping jackeroo cowboys two-stepping in the twilight on the ranch where Kay’s mum has gone to escape. Nearly every frame shows off a clever angle (not lost on the small screen), bits of everyday effluvia made exotic, or the expressive quirks that make these messed-up and repressed folks somewhat sympathetic.
The film is more than entrancing effects, though. Sweetie is fat, outrageous, and crazy, not just as a result of her father’s selfish, obsessive doting but because of incest, a father-daughter boundary-crossing hinted at in flashbacks and quite possibly persisting into Sweetie’s emotionally retarded adult life, as a bathtub scene with the two would indicate. Campion’s allusions to the incest theme are too subtle — many critics overlooked them altogether — and that is where this art film fails. B+