David Zeiger's somewhat gritty Sweet Old World might not seem so sweet on its surface (even until the very end, which features a needless, not-so-sweet death), but it's an expertly performed character piece that plays fair with almost all of its characters. Zeiger's background is as a documentary filmmaker who's trained his camera mostly on high school students, having done The Band for the PBS series POV, Senior Year, and the Indie Spirit award-winning Sir! No Sir!, about the efforts of Vietnam vets to contest the war they themselves fought in. This is Zeiger's first foray into narrative filmmaking, and in a rare move on my part, I defer to the director's own synopsis of his movie, because sometime said synopsis (with some editing, by me) is just perfect enough:
Sweet Old World is inspired by my personal documentary film, The Band (PBS series P.O.V., 1998), in which I followed my son through his junior year in high school as we both struggled with the death of his brother seven years earlier. It tells the fictional story of a father (Brian, played by John Nielsen) and his teenage son (Ethan, played by newcomer Jacques Colimon), both of whose lives were shattered when the son's brother was killed in an accident seven years earlier. Each trapped in their own private grief and pain, their relationship has grown strained and cold over the years. But the return of the dead son's best friend (Eric Peter-Kaiser), who left town after the accident, causes Brian and Ethan's carefully constructed protective shells to shatter, bringing them both to the brink of disaster and the potential for a new life and relationship. Throughout, the story is driven by Ethan, whose seemingly uncharacteristic willingness to flirt with danger under the influence of his brother's friend forces his father to confront his own buried grief. The story unfolds amidst a typical year in the life of Calfornia's South Pasadena High School Marching Band as a hundred disparate teenagers--including Ethan--and their teachers start from scratch to mold a complex program of music and motion.
Zeiger's documentary roots show spectacularly through in Sweet Old World's finest moments, as it follows co-lead Jacques Colimon (a mindful young actor who's terrific in his debut) as he travels through his high-school-band world (the scenes with the band are completely exquisite). John Nielsen--who thankfully gets as much screen time as Coliman--is also moving and extremely believable as Colimon's troubled father. These days, it's unusual to see a movie about a kid that pays an equal amount of respect to his parents; the mother, who gets less screen time, is also well-played by Gwendolyn Oliver. The film's most vivid performance comes from a supporting player, Julia Rose, who's cast as one of Ethan's teachers, an astute and compassionate educator who strikes up a tentative romantic dalliance with Ethan's father.
One of the things I love most about looking at ultra-indie films is trying to figure out who in the cast is going on to great things; with Sweet Old World, I had trouble deciding between the wide-eyed newcomer Colimon, the David Straithain-like weathered dad Nielsen (who has many excellent moments), and the harried mother Oliver. But (and this isn't a contest here) I had to internally side with Julia Rose, who had relatively little screen time but who totally convinced me in regard to her character. Everyone in Sweet Old World is worth giving more than a second look to, but Rose is absolutely on the mark in every one of her very difficult sequences. Here, though, I must return also to Colimon, who strike the proper balance between being innately intelligent and resolutely cool. His performance does what the screenplay can't do.
My one complaint with Sweet Old World is one that can be leveled against many festival-level indie features: It gets too bogged down in plot, and some of the screenplay machinations register as a no-go, mainly because they're based on what other movies do. For instance, when drug dealers are introduced into a story like this, you know where it's going. Unfortunately, that means that Eric Peter-Kaiser's long-haired wild thing--while personable enough--is cast down as the story's thankless villain. Though he tries mightily, Zeiger doesn't do enough to make this character completely sympathetic and as a result, we can see where the movie is heading plot-wise. As well, the idea of the photographer father's ham-handed retreat into his own past, as he secretively takes photos of his estranged son, seems a bit tired.
Even so, as a one-time film festival programmer, I can understand why Sweet Old World was included in the Atlanta Film Festival lineup. Even if a movie isn't perfect, sometime you want to root for its players (who might have only this one chance to show what they can do), and here we cheer for the film's passionate and little-seen cast and for its clearly devoted and experienced writer/director. I can't say I agree with every one of the latter's choices; in a post-screening Q&A, Zeiger admitted he's a fan of Belgium's Palme D'or-winning Dardenne brothers, but he obviously cannot replicate their disregard for the traditional screenplay (which really means that he hails from a market-driven America and, honestly, who out there can make films like the esteemed Dardennes?). That said, I nonetheless find myself totally on his side and, moreover, on the side of his well-chosen cast.