Berlinale 2023 review: Sweet As (Jub Clerc)

“Clerc’s film is a confident debut that coalesces into a subtle reminder that hope is always an option in dire circumstances because there is always a helping hand to guide you.”

More and more do we see filmmakers, particularly young ones, going back to their roots for their projects. This is no different for Australian Jub Clerc, who infuses her gentle and indeed sweet Sweet As with plenty of influences from her own indigenous background and her own experiences to turn her debut into a lived in coming-of-age story about a young girl, and in particular a POC girl, who needs to navigate the minefield that her background brings with it, but also reconnects with her roots along the way. Squarely aimed at the younger audience that the Berlinale’s Generation Kplus intends to attract, Sweet As is a low-key but confident debut that has some surprising visuals up its sleeve.

After an explosive incident with her addicted mother, troubled 16-year-old indigenous teen Murra (Shantae Barnes-Cowan) finds herself abandoned. Her uncle, a local cop, sends her on a unique Photo Safari for teens that are ‘at risk’ to prevent her from being lost in the ‘Child Protection’ system. Reluctantly she boards a minibus with a small group of teenagers and two charismatic leaders and heads down the dusty highway cutting through the remote Pilbara country in Western Australia. It will turn out to be a lifeline. The closed off Murra slowly opens up as she forms bonds, all the while capturing both her fellow travellers and the beautiful landscape on the analog camera handed to her. Between finding her indigenous roots, experiencing heartbreak, and making new friends, Murra will take important steps on her journey from rebellious teen to confident young woman.

Murra’s story is largely based on Clerc’s own experiences as a teenager, in particular the photography road trip that Murra undertakes. Clerc did exactly that as an ‘at risk’ kid back in the ’80s, even if she didn’t really realize she was at risk at the time. That trip eventually led to her being a filmmaker and a storyteller, something that is signaled in Murra’s story through the titled stills of her photos that intersperse her journey. Clerc’s personal investment in the story, including her extensive knowledge of the First Nations community she came from, lends Sweet As a strong sense of authenticity. This is compounded by the subtlety with which she incorporates these elements, eschewing knocking her audience over the head with it but presenting it in an organic manner.

The film is remarkably low on conflict. Based on the experience with similar films and the setup one would expect a more feisty dynamic among the four teens, but Sweet As has them connect almost instantly, any altercations that inevitably happen on a trip like this quickly brushed over. This gives the actors little to work with, rendering the performances somewhat flat (though Barnes-Cowan definitely shows what she is capable of in the opening scenes). The film chooses to focus more on the issues the teens are dealing with: suicidal tendencies, abusive relationships, PTSD, all at an age where sexual awakening also lies around the corner. The scenes where Murra and her companions get to open up about their problems are thus automatically the best, while the sequences linking them definitely feel like little more than transitions to get from point A to point B, giving an episodic rhythm to the film.

Many of Sweet As‘s strong suits are behind the camera. In particular the visuals are at times striking. Clerc often places the camera in unusual positions, and while this doesn’t always work there are moments throughout that take the viewer by surprise because of their original compositions, and even without an obvious formalist intent it makes Sweet As an exciting watch; Western Australia’s gorgeous landscapes definitely help. The juxtaposition between the mining industry the group leaves behind as they go on their adventure, and the infinite beauty of the quiet outback is not lost. Layered on top are the sounds of nature as well as indigenous instruments, and these do have a clear intent as a reflection of Murra’s state of mind. Rounding it off, the film’s soundtrack is a compilation of typical road trip songs, all done by indigenous artists, that zoom the film along Australia’s straight highways.

Sweet As isn’t a film that will set the world on fire, but as a look at a rarely portrayed community which more often than not receives the short end of the stick, Clerc’s film is a confident debut that coalesces into a subtle reminder that hope is always an option in dire circumstances because there is always a helping hand to guide you.

(c) Image copyright: Nic Duncan / Arenamedia Pty Ltd