Sweet As is a must-watch Australian coming-of-age

There is an undeniable authenticity to Jub Clerc's debut film and, even in its simplicity, it is captivating.

Sweet As, the debut feature by Nyul Nyul/Yawuru woman Jub Clerc, is a must-watch Australian coming-of-age film. Inspired by Clerc’s own experience growing up in the Pilbara and the Kimberley, the film is a refreshing twist on the classic coming-of-age tales. It’s also the first Western Australian feature film to be written and directed by an Indigenous Australian woman.

It tells the story of 16-year-old Indigenous girl, Murra (Shantae Barnes-Cowan), whose uncle Ian (Mark Coles Smith) encourages her to go on a photo safari for at-risk teens after she is abandoned by her addict mother.

Shantae Barnes-Cowan beautifully embodies Murra, capturing her strength, innocence, youth and conviction. Murra’s journey is a delight to watch as she reflects on her relationship with her mother, herself and her surroundings throughout the trip. When team leader Mitch (Tasma Walton) asks Murra what her story is, it’s inspiring to see her learn to acknowledge her flaws and even welcome new friendships along the way.

The whole cast of Sweet As is captivating in their portrayal of their characters. It’s easy to fall in love with every character regardless of their flaws. Mitch and fellow team leader Fernando (Carlos Samson Jr.) protect the teens and teach them important life lessons; helping them grow closer to each other, look out for one another and learn more about themselves.

As Silvi Vann-Wall wrote for ScreenHub recently:

Though it is formulaic, Sweet As should not be dismissed as lazy or unimaginative. Using familiar tropes in its set up, the film establishes a universal appeal to kids and teens who feel frustrated with their home life,  while defining what makes Australian Indigenous youthhood different. Murra has a strong connection to her roots, and makes time to thank Country and acknowledge her ancestors when on their lands. But she also yearns to escape her family and find her autonomy as an adult.

Sweet As review: uniquely Australian coming-of-age tale

Elvis (Pedrea Jackson), Kylie (Mikayla Levy) and Sean (Andrew Wallace) are the other teenagers on the trip. Their acting performances are brilliant because it doesn’t feel like they are playing characters, but rather being themselves, which is also a testament to Clerc’s direction.

Read: Katie Milwright ACS on grit, gratitude and getting to the Pilbara

There is space given for all the teen characters’ personalities to shine through alongside lead actress Barnes-Cowa. And a special mention has to go to Ngaire Pigram, who plays Grace, Murra’s mother. With her endearing performance, you can’t help but feel for her too even in her dysfunction.

Landscape as character

Set in the stunning remote Pilbara country in Western Australia, the incorporation of the landscape as a storytelling technique is magnificent. There is something mesmerising about how the landscape is captured on film. Katie Milwright’s cinematography sheds a light on the landscape which is itself a character in the film. It holds a special place as the characters interact with it and show respect to the ancestors of the land.

Read: Mark Coles Smith: ‘I came away from Mystery Road a reassembled person’

The film’s soundtrack is a huge stand-out that features various Indigenous artists and does well to convey different moods. But there is also clever use of different sounds as the teens explore the Pilbara.

In some moments, the only sound the audience hears are footsteps or birds chirping as the group becomes immersed in their surroundings. The sounds emphasise their interaction with the land as they touch the rocks and trees. It brings more attention to the natural landscape so the audience can feel as though they too are present in that natural space.

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The story and perspective is refreshing. There is an undeniable authenticity in the film and even in its simplicity, it is captivating. In the end credits we see some of the real photos taken from Clerc’s own journey, which ties the movie up so beautifully.

It truly is sweet as.

Sweet As is in cinemas now.