Sweet As: Aboriginal Coming-of-age in the Pilbara Landscape

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Sweet As
Directed by Jub Clerc
Written by Jub Clerc and Steve Rodgers
Starring Shantae Barnes-Cowan, Tasma Walton, Carlos Sanson Jr., Mark Coles Smith, Mikayla Levy, Andrew Wallace
In cinemas

Review by Barry Healy

There is a well-trodden pathway of coming-of-age teenage movies, a genre of which The Breakfast Club or Ladybird spring to mind. The formula is roughly: troubled adolescents, thrown together outside their comfort zone, challenged by circumstances or a mentor, journey through conflicts, bond together and come out the wiser.

Sweet As certainly fits the mould but has unique features raising it above the common herd.

A possibly significant reason is that the story is based upon writer/director Jub Clerc’s own teenaged introduction to photography, which has now morphed into cinema. She is close to her story but does not stifle it. She is intent on veracity, not cliché.

Another is the inspired casting of Shantae Barnes-Cowan as Murra, the Aboriginal child of an inadequate mother, who spends a week on a youth camp in the Pilbara outback. She learns to look through a camera’s lens and discovers new ways of seeing things.

Barnes-Cowan masterfully maintains the mask of a silent, cynical teenager while betraying her true emotions through the ever-so-slight trace of a smile on her lips, or the deepening furrows of her brow. The entire weight of the film’s integrity rests on her shoulders, and she carries it off.

As Murra engages with photography the audience is gently inducted into her inner world as the film freezes and the title of each photo appears.

Pervading the movie as an unnamed presence is the Pilbara landscape stunningly filmed by Katie Milwright. Unremarked upon but blatant to the viewer is the contrast between the beauty and deep cultural heritage of the rock formations and water holes and the industrial landscape that has been imposed by the invading capitalist society.

Why is it that Murra’s family lives in a dilapidated shack while all around them the Pilbara’s mineral wealth is being shipped out?

The contrast between the bleak, alienated reality of Port Hedland and the spiritual depths of the interior landscapes is stark. In Sweet As, Jub Clerc offers non-Aboriginal Australians a voyage of discovery, an opportunity to see the continent through Aboriginal cultural eyes.

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