Sweetland Review | Ghost Town

by Andrew Parker

Sweetland tackles feelings of loss and isolation by taking an already sparse story and gradually stripping everything away until there’s nothing left. The second film from Newfoundland writer-director Christian Sparkes to be released in the span of a month – following the equally profound supernatural parable, The King TideSweetland is a sad story rising and falling on big emotional swells, but also one that approaches a wealth of uneasy feelings from a kind, non-judgmental perspective. It’s built around someone who can often come across as obstinate and unlikeable, but through careful storytelling and a unique pivot in its later stages, Sweetland can move without resorting to melodrama or manipulation.

The once thriving and fiercely independent coastal community of Sweetland is all but a ghost town these days. Ever since a moratorium on cod fishing killed the only local industry, all but a few dozen of the town’s residents have packed up and moved to more prosperous locales. As such, the Canadian government has arrived offering resettlement packages for everyone to relocate, but those funds will only be paid out if all local residents are in agreement. There are two holdouts, the most prominent and staunch one being Moses (Mark Lewis Jones), a widower whose family going back generations is buried on the island. Moses also worries about the welfare of his autistic nephew, Jesse (Cail Turner), a young man who believes he can speak with the dead and who’ll likely have troubles fitting in with other kids in a larger area. Moses has become largely hated by his fellow townsfolk, but even in the face of open threats, he refuses to budge, and he’s willing to rely on old school subsistence living tactics if he’s forced to.

It’s a nifty coincidence that Sweetland is getting released so close to Sparkes’ other film about a secluded maritime community. The King Tide and Sweetland might be different films tonally, but they share a lot of common DNA. Both are films about people trying and failing to keep feelings of loss and guilt at bay while maintaining a stranglehold over memories pertaining to a lost way of life. In both films, people are forced to confront their own feelings of selfishness, but whereas The King Tide was a cautionary tale with wide ranging repercussions, Sweetland is something a lot more insular and intimate. While Moses’ actions have an adverse impact on everyone in town, Sparkes’ narrative here revolves around an examination of every reason why someone would want to stay in a place with a lot of history and little potential for a future.

Sparkes shows love for people who’ve been largely forgotten about by the outside world until someone wants something from them. The residents of Sweetland are resilient and proud, but also tired and unable to progress. Save for a fellow widower named Loveless (Lawrence Barry), no one other than Moses can see value in staying, and even then, most residents are convinced that the only thing keeping both men in town is feelings of survivor’s guilt. If these people stay, their situation will become even more untenable by the day. Sparkes has love for Moses, even in his most unlikeable moments, but also for those feeling they’re being held back by one man’s overwhelming sense of duty to the island. Moses is determined to die on the island, even though he never outwardly says as much, but Sparkes’ film questions what use there is in dying in a place where one can’t truly live? The land can sustain, and the waves, rocks, and footprints will remain long after everyone has left, but willpower and memories can only take people so far before it turns them miserable.

Jones’ performance does a lot of heavy lifting for Sparkes, especially in the film’s final third where Moses more or less gets what he wishes for. Jones perfectly clocks Moses as a strong and caring person, but someone who isn’t swayed by the sadness of others because he’s too locked into his own experience. He’s a hardened man with unresolved feelings of regret, and Jones adds a bit of subtext that suggests Moses would see himself as a failure if he were ever to leave. Jones finds wonderful dramatic counterpoints from Sara Canning, as Jesse’s frustrated mother, and Andy Jones, as one of the few people left in town still willing to speak to Moses in a friendly manner.

Sparkes frames Sweetland in natural lighting for the most part – just as he did with The King Tide – revelling in all the lush wonders the Atlantic coast has to offer and getting a nice glow from warm fires and the reflection of stars off the ocean. Sparkes’ visuals sometimes carry the film through sequences where the viewer starts to wonder if he’s ever going to broach the question of whether or not there’s a better way for everyone involved to handle the current situation with Moses. In terms of look and tone, Sweetland is a bit like that old chestnut about the guy who wishes for the end of the world so they can catch up on all their reading in peace, but they break their glasses. Here, there’s not much reading material to be found (and what little there is provides a nice payoff), and the guy in question just wants to spend time with ghosts that can never answer and never give anything back. It’s a sad thing to think about, but Sparkes makes the viewer care about the mentality of someone willing to go to such extremes.

Sweetland opens in Toronto at Scotiabank Theatre and in Vancouver at VIFF Centre on Friday, May 17, 2024.

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