In the glittering drama “Sweet Thing,” responsible, reserved Billie (Lana Rockwell) loves to sing. She imagines her namesake, the jazz legend Billie Holiday, as a companion and savior. Caregiving is familiar to Billie, who’s a teenager, because the role of protector is one she plays for her younger brother Nico (Nico Rockwell). The pair’s parents are separated, a state of affairs that has plunged their loving father Adam (Will Patton) into a booze-fueled depression. When Adam’s alcoholism lands him in a rehabilitation facility, Billie and Nico are forced to face the darker demons of their mother’s house, where Eve (Karyn Parsons) lives with her abusive boyfriend.
Longing for escape, the children meet Malik (Jabari Watkins), a neighborhood boy with every hot-wiring skill an aspiring runaway could ever need. With Malik by their side, Billie and Nico take off from their mother’s home. For the first time, these little fugitives are responsible only for themselves.
What makes this simple story special is the style that the writer and director Alexandre Rockwell brings to the screen. Rockwell cast his wife and two children as Eve, Billie and Nico, and their ease and familiarity lends the film naturalistic warmth. His high contrast black-and-white film photography captures the shimmer of light in Billie’s hair. The shadows of her mother’s home sink into oblivion. The movie’s eclectic soundtrack — with songs from Billie Holiday, Van Morrison and Arvo Pärt — sets a nostalgic mood.
Here, there are no cellphones, no video games. Instead Rockwell intentionally reminds his audience of the rich history of American independent cinema, where filmmakers across decades have built dreamscapes out of the textures of everyday interactions.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. In theaters and in virtual cinemas thorough Film Movement.