Baltimore filmmaker/activist Emily Eaglin’s short film “Sweeter,” which hopped around a few film festivals and is now streaming for free on Facebook, splits the difference between candy-colored Charm City quirk and Baltimore’s prolific gritty city realness that too often gets twisted into one-note, post-“The Wire” pain.
“Sweeter” drops us into the life of 23-year-old video game designer mom Samira (Eaglin) and her young daughter Willy (Je’Syre Beckwith) and rolls out the maddening contingencies of being a woman, specifically a black woman for whom labor is expected and undervalued, all the while providing a casual, intimate, portrait of mother and daughter. The first time we meet Willy, she’s reading in bed and Samira has been tipped off that she isn’t asleep because Willy has just posted something to Goodreads. Samira goes up to her room, tells her to go to sleep, which Willy isn’t too interested in, and they talk about trading places. Willy, in part rightfully, wants the freedom of being an adult—this is where her precociousness is particularly well-observed; for bright kids, childhood mostly means boredom—and Samira, good mom, levels with her and shows her calendar to Willy so she can see what it’s like to be an adult, for real.
From there, a few lightly fantastical moments wherein Willy stands in for Samira (she makes breakfast, she attends an obligatory brunch) that have the charm of something like Spike Jonze’s video for Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Sky’s The Limit’ where kids play-acting as adults is less for laughs than affording children agency and reminding busy grown-ups that we’re not all different. That the film doesn’t see this conceit through beyond just two clever scenes is just fine—it commits to the distracted nature of a child’s mind and perhaps a mom’s mind when she’s juggling too many responsibilities, makes its point, and returns to the rarefied rewards of parenting. In this case, Samira’s point is well-taken by Willy, who then writes her book report for school about the wage gap.
At the heart of “Sweeter” is a seriousness with a loud and clear message, but the way Eaglin puts all that in the mouths of delightfully regular-ass people recalls warm hearted, working class movies such as Charles Burnett’s “My Brother’s Wedding” or Mike Leigh’s “Life Is Sweet” filtered through the genteel surrealism of say, Beyoncé collaborator Melina Matsoukas’ videos or Spike Lee in his expressionistic “School Daze” phase. The short kicks off brashly with shots of Samira twisting Willy’s hair into braids as Willy cries, set to the Isley Brothers’ ‘Twist and Shout’ while the opening credits appear on the labels of beauty products around the bedroom. It’s a common scene of black life given a lithe boost of film school savvy and situational humor. Meanwhile, Eaglin embraces a naturalistic kind of acting and as director, she doesn’t try to contain Je’Syre Beckwith, so Willy blurts out her lines, mumbles and laughs through them, which is how kids speak and think and act and overreact (which is quite different from overacting, by the way).
The points here are made, and made, um, sweetly: Being a woman, specifically a black woman, means you must work twice as hard for half the pay. It’s good for kids to know this stuff early even though they shouldn’t have to know this stuff yet.
After the end credits, a dedication: “To Korryn Gaines. In memory of the years of motherhood unjustly stole by an unjust system. Rest In Power (1992-2016).” And just like that, the stakes of “Sweeter,” a movie about black motherhood, about a black mom who keeps it as close to 100 with her kid as a mom possibly can, are raised. We’ve watched the story of a 23-year-old mom mothering and we’re reminded of another mother (Gaines was 23 when she was killed) prevented from parenting by the police, a crueler but connected arm of the same system that puts everything in place to underpay a mom like Samira.
“Sweeter,” directed by Emily Eaglin, is streaming at facebook.com/FilmFairy.