12 June 2023

Sweet As turns its camera lens on a coming of age road trip

| Marcus Kelson
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teenage girl with camera

Sweet As is a thoughtful and ultimately positive coming of age story. Photo: Supplied.

A coming of age film, told with complete honesty and nothing hidden would be one of the hardest movies to make. When it is largely autobiographical, the task must be even harder.

But this is exactly what Jub Clerc, a proud Nyul Nyul/Yawuru woman from Western Australia’s Kimberley region has done with her debut motion film, Sweet As, which she co-wrote with Steve Rogers and directed herself.

The film begins by tracking troubled Indigenous teenager, Murra (Shantae Barnes-Cowan) who is living with her mother, Grace (Ngaire Pigram.)

The relationship is fraught with difficulty and after one unsettling night you feel left with the impression Murra is going to be swept up and lost in the child protection system.

Her uncle and local policeman Ian (Mark Coles-Smith) reaches out and in a bid to save her from herself as much as anything, puts Murra on a bus with three other teenagers and a couple of guides to head off to the Pilbara region for a photography and camping trip.

The quartet consists of Murra, another Indigenous boy Elvis (Pedrea Jackson), the deeply troubled and potentially suicidal white teen Sean (Andrew Wallace), and the wayward Kyla (Mikalya Levy).

Their mentors and tour guides on this trip are Tasma Walton (Mitch) and Chilean Australian actor Carlos Sanson Jr who plays Fernando.

Things don’t start well.

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On their very first night all the kids find someone to buy them grog and make a mess of things after they were expressly told to stay in their hotel rooms.

Mitch and Fernando (mostly Mitch) lay down the law and it moves on from there.

Over the coming days there are a variety of challenges and moments where this group, particularly Murra, have to face up to their own truths. Not just as teenagers but really what they are about to become, young adults, and how this coming chapter will define the rest of their lives.

In his book Goodbye to Berlin English novelist Christopher Isherwood wrote: “I am the camera with its shutters open, quite passive, recording not thinking.”

Of course Isherwood was doing the exact opposite; Fernando shows Murra and the others what it is like to create images from nothing and turn them into something otherworldly.

This is the second and equally important part of the film’s narrative, not just for the sake of photography, but for people to be introduced to Country and begin learning from the Ancient Ones.

Ms Clerc says her film, a composite of characters, is partly based on an episode in her own youth.

“It was very cathartic and also very nerve-wracking. Revealing something personal about yourself is something you’ve got to take ownership of if you’re going there. ‘Be brave’ was my mantra. I knew these characters came from a lived experience but they were not one specific person but many. Especially with the mum character.”

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But Ms Clerc has succeeded admirably. Even though this is her debut film, she and several of the cast members have long been associated with what I think is Australia’s most exceptional drama/crime franchise Mystery Road, so there is a distinct pedigree there already.

Successfully balancing the two major strains of this story and seamlessly interweaving them is a truly remarkable act of storytelling. Importantly, Ms Clerc also lets the film breathe in the spaces between the narrative.

The entire cast is exceptional but Shante Barnes-Cowan is an absolute standout as Murra, bringing incredible maturity and insight into her role.

Sweet As is beautiful, at times difficult, as films of this nature invariably are, but an overwhelming exercise in magic and compassion. Four stars out of five.

Sweet As is screening at the Dendy and Palace Electric cinemas.

Marcus Kelson is a Canberra writer and critic.

Original Article published by Marcus Kelson on Riotact.

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