Sweet As

The first Western Australian movie directed and written by an Indigenous female filmmaker, this coming-of-age tale is as thoughtful as it is gorgeous.
Sarah Ward
Published on May 31, 2023


On the silver screen, Australia's golden landscape is frequently the place where pain dwells. Even when spinning fiction, films such as Mystery RoadGoldstoneSweet CountryHigh Ground, The Furnace and The Survival of Kindness scorch reality's horrors and heartbreaks into celluloid with ample help from an ochre-hued backdrop that can only belong to the land Down Under. In Sweet As, the red earth of Western Australia's Pilbara region similarly couldn't be more pivotal; however, this coming-of-age drama from first-time feature director and writer Jub Clerc (The Heights) — who previously contributed segments to anthology movies The Turning and Dark Whispers: Volume 1, draws upon her own adolescent experiences for her full-length debut, and crafts the first WA flick that's helmed and penned by an Indigenous female filmmaker — deploys its patch of Aussie soil as a place where teenagers find themselves.

Sweet As often lets its chosen terrain stretch as far as the eye can see, which homegrown cinema adores doing. As the movie roves lovingly over the Pilbara's plains and gorges, cinematographer Katie Milwright (Deadloch, The Clearing) sees its vivid hues, craggy surfaces, and dusty scrubland over and over. More than that, Clerc and her director of photography revel in the details and the beauty, conveying the power of Country, and of travel, in every patient and lingering shot. Indeed, watching Sweet As feels like communing with its surroundings; the picture itself is, and enthusiastically shares that sensation with viewers. As it peers and percolates — absorbs, too — the film also spies a canvas for hopes and dreams. It soaks in the inescapable potency of land that has meant so much to the planet's oldest continuous culture for so long, and now proves revelatory for a group of adolescents sent bush on a photo safari.

Murra (Shantae Barnes-Cowan, Firebite) is one such shutterbug, albeit not by choice. With her mother Grace (Ngaire Pigram, also a Firebite alum) grappling with addiction, the 16-year-old is traversing a path to child services' care when her police-officer uncle Ian (Mark Coles Smith, Mystery Road: Origin) enrols her on a trip that she doesn't initially want to take. With youth workers Mitch (Tasma Walton, How to Please a Woman) and Fernando (Carlos Sanson Jr, Bump) as their guides and chaperones, Murra, Kylie (newcomer Mikayla Levy), Elvis (Pedrea Jackson, Robbie Hood) and Sean (fellow first-timer Andrew Wallace) are soon hurtling into the outback on a minibus with cameras in their hands — to snap the sights away from their ordinary lives, and also step beyond everything that they know, form new friendships, gain a different perspective and gaze as intently at themselves as they do at the earth from behind a lens.

IRL and in the film, sending kids to capture the inimitable Australian scenery one photo at a time, and to roam over its vastness, is a simple yet profound concept. Murra and her companions — all strangers when they board the bus, and all considered at-risk due to their own troubles — are far too familiar with being scrutinised by others, but now get to do some clocking themselves in a cathartic way. They're tasked with judging what's worthy of their time and attention, and of being immortalised in their snapshots. As they point and shoot, they're given the freedom to express and inspect anything that can be glimpsed at through a viewfinder. They're empowered to be bold, break moulds and discover what no one else perceives. Creativity can be an escape, and it can also be an exorcising release and a catalyst to adopt new viewpoints. As its teen characters segue from apprehensive and rebellious to being grateful what they're doing, and where and why, Sweet As explores and appreciates the straightforward acts of road tripping and taking photographs along the way for everything they can offer.

Thanks to its origins in her own tale, Clerc's feature unsurprisingly feels personal. Just as crucially, it feels lived in. Bringing a disparate group of high schoolers together isn't a novel storyline, nor is having them glean life-changing insights in the process — The Breakfast Club has notched up nearly four decades of affection for nailing the formula — but Sweet As never merely ticks recognisable plot boxes. Even as Murra's journey involves crushes, questionable choices and underage drinking, the film always values its characters over the teen rites of passage they undertake. While so much about no longer being a kid but not yet being an adult is universal, the most potent examinations of what that's genuinely like refract teendom's markers and milestones through the people going through them. As told by Clerc, Murra's plight is deeply relatable, including while anchored in being an Indigenous youth in Australia today, but it's also exactly what it is because of who the movie's protagonist uniquely is — and, again, why.

Consequently, casting is as important to Sweet As as Clerc's formative years, script (as co-penned with Seriously Red actor and Rush screenwriter Steve Rodgers), and calm and confident guiding hand. This is just the fifth entry on Barnes-Cowan's resume after Operation Buffalo, Total Control, Firebite and Wyrmwood: Apocalypse, and it's the young Adnyamathanha woman's fifth exceptional performance — the fifth in a career that, based on her excellent efforts so far, is only going to keep growing and expanding. Naturalism and resilience have swiftly become consistent hallmarks of her work, each assisting in making Murra seem like she's walked into the frame from reality. Clerc benefits from both, too, observing Barnes-Cowan as Murra observes the world, and finding an entire universe of emotion blossoming.

What does it mean to truly take notice — of people, personalities, Country, cultures, history, existence's big and small highlights, and also everything that's often overlooked — and to be taken notice of in return? They're questions that Sweet As endeavours to sit with. As set to all-Indigenous soundtrack, the film is happiest surveying, contemplating and being in the moment; like protagonist, like movie. Sweet As also shines as an example of what it means to cherish a shared exchange, thoughtful glance, bonding experience, radiant hue, gorgeous vista and perfectly captured instant. This buoyant feature brims with all of the above, beaming as brightly as the distinctively Australian landscape it can't and won't stop treasuring.


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