“Sweaty Betty” is not quite a documentary and not quite a fictional narrative. It lives somewhere in that fascinating space in between, a construction of the real world that’s as much about the story as it is about the method of storytelling. Made by directors Joe Frank and Zack Reed, it’s a heavily improvised, lo-fi portrait of living in the hood – in this case a small town just outside of Washington, D.C. There are several comparisons that could be helpful in describing the tenor of this film – what if Harmony Korine directed “Friday,” for instance – but ultimately the movie has an energy that’s refreshingly distinct and distinctly hard to pinpoint.
What isn’t difficult to pinpoint is what makes it work, and that’s chiefly its vibrant cast of characters. Made up entirely of non-professional actors, the faces and personalities who populate each handheld shot frame breathe life into what could have been a stale experiment in improvisation. Our first introduction into the world of the film is Rico (Rico Mitchell), a charismatic single teenaged father who is already “in character” even as he explains that starring in this movie will be a way for him to find success and help his community.
“It’s more than just a movie,” he says. “It goes deeper than this. I wanna show you my real life story, you know? It ain’t so easy out here, but it ain’t so hard.”
It’s that last sentiment, “it ain’t so easy, but it ain’t so hard” that encapsulates what makes the movie one of the more refreshing hood narratives to date. The goal of the filmmakers is to tell a story of life in the hood that doesn’t rely on the extremes of violence and desperation, though, thankfully, this isn’t a sanitized portrait of inner city life either.
Instead, after Rico’s introduction and a brief musical interlude that reveals the rest of the neighborhood regulars, the movie dives right into its unexpectedly engaging mix of winding, dialogue-heavy scenes of the mundane and pure absurdity.
That’s the magic – ping-ponging between the banal and the randomly bizarre occurrences of life. The banal: Rico and his best friend Scooby (his real life best friend Seth Dubose) in a ten minute scene discussing what they’re going to do later that night. The random: a stranger interrupting them mid-conversation to give them a beautiful “cocaine white” pitbull who he’s sick of taking care of. The boys readily accept the dog, hoping they can use her to make some money through breeding.
That’s one of two plotlines in the film, presented in several chapters and vignettes. The other plot follows neighborhood fixture Floyd and his family, who are hoping to get rich off of a 1,000 pound pig named Miss Charlotte. They want to turn her into the official team mascot of the Redskins.
It’s this sense of the ridiculous and the extraordinary juxtaposed with the everyday that makes “Sweaty Betty” ultimately so watchable. These are real stories of the everyday struggle, the ingenious ways that people hustle to survive, but without the sort of bleak desperation that can come off as fetishistic. There’s a lightness to the film (and how could there not be, when there’s a huge pig wearing a Redskins jersey on-screen?), an off-kilter comedic timing that’s actually strengthened rather than hindered by the movie’s tendency to meander. Ultimately, “Sweaty Betty” is a strange, heartfelt, and surprisingly engaging effort from these first-time filmmakers, playing with genre and structure in exciting new ways.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.