Sometimes I watch movies that aren’t very good. I’m sure you do this odd thing, too, for one reason or another. I have a particular affinity for John Hurt and found myself watching the less-than-mediocre blackmailing flick, Little Sweetheart, on Netflix.
As I was watching this dull, inane film I found myself not reflecting only on such wasted talent, but also on the unintentionally unsettling nature of it. The story revolves around vacationing couple Robert (John Hurt, oh God why John Hurt) and Dorothea (Karen Young), who happen to hide two very pedestrian secrets—Dorothea is Robert’s mistress, and they’ve robbed a bank. Robert meets nine-year old precocious schemer and the titular ‘little sweetheart’ Thelma (Cassie Barasch) next door. Thelma infers Dorothea is not Robert’s wife using the brilliant technique of looking at her right hand and, after receiving the misguided birthday gift from Robert of a point and shoot camera, begins blackmailing the couple. After breaking into their house (why? Uh, don’t know), Thelma and friend Elizabeth steal a loaded handgun. Thelma uses the gun to needlessly kill Elizabeth, and the murder is pinned on Robert.
This is all well and good, but Little Sweetheart can’t quite decide which sort of movie it is. Is it a thriller about blackmail, a Bad Seed-style evil-kid movie, or a mistaken-identity dark comedy? If it’s none of the above, what is it? It wants to be erotic without letting anyone take their shirt off; it wants to be violent without any blood. It wants to be a fun watch without letting any humor distract from its blackness. Consequently, Little Sweetheart is a torturous watch, but not for the reasons it intends.
It’s certainly disturbing to see a nine year old girl shoot another nine year old girl. That much the film got right. But the unsettling nature of Little Sweetheart has less to do with its plot as it does with its atmosphere. Maybe it’s the casual and unaddressed racist undertone (the only black character exists solely to be scapegoated by Thelma). Maybe it’s the disquieting non sequiturs that don’t contribute anything but a foul taste. Maybe it’s the numerous gratuitous shots of little girls in their underwear.
It’s more than a film just sucking. Little Sweetheart isn’t a shit movie—it’s not well done but it isn’t laughably bad. It’s a film that’s simply drenched in a hatred of humanity that (worst of all) it doesn’t know what to do with. It isn’t simply a case of a distressing theme or of a film that’s difficult to watch. There are a lot of bleak, black-hearted films in the world, films so unbearably pessimistic you need a Xanax to get through them. Little Sweetheart is not one of these films—it’s a sort of play-time badness, masquerading as edgy.
As Robert is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, Dorothea breaks down in tears. The sheriff grabs her arms and shoves her to the floor—“You’re a lot perkier in the flesh than in those pictures,” he grunts, “Maybe we better take you along.” Is this meant to be funny? Is it meant to make a comment about the justice system? Is it meant to be anything except a mean-spirited, sexist one liner? The film is filled with moments like this, moments that mean nothing and say nothing, but taste like bile.
The character of Thelma is a low-rent Rhoda Penmark from The Bad Seed dressed like Iris from Taxi Driver. She isn’t likeable, she isn’t evil, and she isn’t particularly bright, she’s just a lucky sociopath. She watches a lot of violent TV and I suppose we’re intended to infer that she’s been corrupted by the media, which is an old stand-by stooge in films like this.
The only person who ends up punished for all of this collective stupid horror is Robert, arguably the film’s only sympathetic character, who’s gunned down by the police after trying to ask Thelma why she ruined his life. Instead of embracing this bleakness as an unpleasant comment on human nature, the existence of an occasional utter lack of human regard, Little Sweetheart tries to have it both ways. It moves immediately from Robert’s senseless murder to a fishing boat that has picked up Elizabeth, apparently (and stupidly) alive and well, despite being shot three times at close range and falling into the ocean.
So which is it, Little Sweetheart? You can’t be too good to kill off a child (a feat bravely accomplished by The Bad Seed 33 years earlier), but still present the world as merciless and cold.
At the very least, for the love of god, admit that panty-shots of nine year old girls are not acceptable ways to make your middling film “edgy”.
Britta R. Moline 12/26/11