Sweetland

Sweetland Review: A Bittersweet Story About the Difficulty of Change

The town is dying. That’s the start of Christian Sparkes’ new drama Sweetland. It’s not entirely clear why, but the town is metaphorically crumbling. The residents have a chance at government-assisted relocation and job retraining, but the offer is only good if every resident takes it, and Moses Sweetland (Mark Lewis Jones) doesn’t want to.

Moses, you see, is a gruff old man. He’s nearly the last of a line so embedded in the town that it’s not clear if the town got its name from his family or vice versa. He has little reason to leave: his whole life has been spent in the village, and his persistence keeps a few of the other old-timers from wanting to go either.

At its core, this is a very Newfoundland story. Outport communities have been resettled in a number of ways over the last 60 years (and it’s worth noting that the depiction here isn’t quite accurate but works for dramatic purposes), and the death of these small communities comes with a cultural cost. The shortest version of Moses’s motivation here is that he’s never known change, and change is hard, even when someone is leaving you threatening letters made of text cut from magazines.

Sweetland
Mary Walsh in Sweetland

It’s an easy hook for a story like this, and Jones rises to the occasion. He’s well known for playing gruff characters (see Chernobyl, Apostle, or even Star Wars: The Last Jedi), and as such, this role feels like it’s made for him. It’s important to know that he’s not aloof or uncaring, just stubborn and emotionally closed off in the way that small-town men can be. There are scenes in which this facade breaks down, most notably two around the midpoint of the film, and Jones exposes just the right amount of Moses’ core to be both incredibly affecting and true to the character. These are great moments and heartbreaking ones.

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As much as it’s Lewis’s film, though, there are a few memorable supporting performances as well. Sara Canning and Mary Walsh, in particular, have small –in the latter case, a single scene– but memorable roles are two women connected to Moses, and Lawrence Barry has a great back-and-forth antagonistic chemistry with Lewis, as the village’s well-meaning fool, Loveless.

Sweetland
Sara Canning and Mark Lewis Jones in Sweetland

One other constant is the stark but stunning beauty of Newfoundland. Christian Sparkes has two movies in cinema right now (the other being The King Tide), both set in small Newfoundland communities, and if there’s only one commonality, it’s that they are both beautiful. In Sweetland, the landscape itself is a character and perhaps the only one that Moses is truly comfortable with. It gives him both comfort and despair at various points in the story, and it’s very believable that the land is perhaps alive in some way.

Sweetland is unabashedly Newfoundland and captures the vibe of small-town living incredibly well; both the community and the isolation that can be created as a result. Mark Lewis Jones is excellent in a rare leading performance, and director Christian Sparkes clearly knows how to shoot his home province. It’sa story told in two halves, and there is some interesting ambiguity in the narrative that will likely keep viewers talking for some time to come. It is, in short, a good film, and a good Canadian film, and one worth seeing.

Sweetland debuts in Vancouver and Toronto on May 17.

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