Sweetie (1989): Jane Campion’s First Feature, Offbeat, Controversial Horror Comedy (Family, Sisters)

Born in 1955, in Wellington, New Zealand, Jane Campion is a graduate of the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School.  She first attracted notice in 1982, when her 9-minute student project, Peel, won an award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Campion’s subsequent shorts, including the half-hour “A Girl’s Story” and “Passionless Moments” (both 1984) led to her growing reputation and to her widely acclaimed first feature, Sweetie (1989), an offbeat horror-comedy, dealing with sexual politics and (dys)functional family relations, issues that would recur in all of her future work.

Grade: A- (****1/2 out of *****)


Film poster

Competing at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, Sweetie was a controversial film met with varying reactions, ranging from admiration to dismissal and condemnation.

Campion’s film is a darkly humorous family drama centering on two sisters.

Slender and mousy Kay (Karen Colson) works in a factory and lives a dreary existence with her boyfriend Louis (Tom Lycos). One day, out of the blue, Kay’s sister, Dawn (Genevieve Lemon) arrives with Bob (Michael Lake), a man she simplay introduces as her manager.

The siblings are really opposites. Nicknamed Sweetie, Dawn is boisterous, impulsive, and overweight. Kay is consumed with uptight phobias, while Dawn still holds onto her childhood dreams of a showbiz career.

Meanwhile, the girls’ eccentric parents, Gordon (Jon Darling) and Flo (Dorothy Barry), go through a nasty separation. The climax occurs at a bizarre family gathering. Kay, Louis, and Gordon trick Dawn so they can visit Flo at a ranch in the Australian outback. Everyone gets together back at the family home where Dawn pulls an immature stunt (which cannot be described here).

The film was released theatrically on September 10, 1989 By Avenue Pictures.

It came out on DVD on October 24, 2006

Geneviève Lemon as Dawn aka Sweetie
Karen Colston as Kay
Tom Lycos as Louis
Jon Darling as Gordon
Dorothy Barry as Flo
Michael Lake as Bob
Andre Pataczek as Clayton
Jean Hadgraft as Mrs. Schneller
Paul Livingston as Teddy Schneller
Louise Fox as Cheryl
Ann Merchant as Paula
Robyn Frank as Ruth (as Robin Frank)
Bronwyn Morgan as Sue
Sean Fennell as Boy clerk
Sean Callinan as Simboo


Directed by Jane Campion
Written by Campion, Gerard Lee
Produced by John Maynard
Cinematography Sally Bongers
Edited by Veronika Jenet
Music by Martin Armiger
Distributed by Filmpac Distribution (Australia)
Avenue Pictures Productions (US)

Release dates: September 28, 1989 (AU); October 6, 1989 (NY Film Fest)

Running time: 97 minutes

Campion’s Career in the 1990s

“Sweetie” was followed by “An Angel at My Table” (1990), a three-hour feature about the troubled youth of New Zealand’s writer, Janet Frame. Originally made for TV, the film met with success during its screenings at the New York and Venice Film Festivals.

Campion’s next film, in 1993, “The Piano,” her biggest artistic and commercial success to date, shared the top award, the Palme d’Or, at Cannes (with Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine”). The film was nominated for several Oscars, including Picture, Director, Actress, and others (See below).

Oscar Alert

In 1993, Jane Campion won the Original Screenplay Oscar for “The Piano,” in a contest that included Nora Ephron, David S. Ward, and Jeff Arch for “Sleepless in Seattle,” Jeff Maguire for “In the Line of Fire,” Ron Nyswaner for “Philadelphia,” and Gary Ross for “Dave.”

Campion lost the Directing Oscar to Steven Spielberg, who won for “Schindler’s List,” a film that swept most of the year’s awards.