“Sweaty Betty” is the rare discovery that’s bracingly original and down to earth in equal measures. Set against the backdrop of a low income African American neighborhood in Hyattsville, Maryland on the outskirts of Washington D.C., directors Joe Frank and Zachary Reed construct a documentary-like look at genial lower class Americans with a charming set of ambitions.
Improvised around a mixture of real and imagined circumstances, “Sweaty Betty” maintains an ingenuity that outshines its uneven production values. Cutting between a pair of teen single parents attempting to sell their new dog and an older man who hopes to make a buck off his pet sow, the movie has a scrappiness that fits well with its characters’ peculiar goals. However, despite a meandering pace and sometimes amateurish craftsmanship, the filmmakers generate a curious degree of engagement from the sheer unpredictability of each scene.
After a rambling opening monologue from young father Rico (Rico Mitchell), Frank and Reed launch into a prolonged credits sequence that reveals various members of the community as they mug for the camera, mostly in groups. Shot on cheap digital video and captured in shaky handheld, these tableaux-like portraits feel like present-day updates to Robert Frank’s post-war photography collection “The Americans,” as they lend poetic elegance to ordinary lives. The rest of the movie follows suit.
From there, the filmmakers segue into a naturalistic set of moments that initially come across as pure cinema verite: Rico and his best pal Scooby (Seth Dubose), another single teen father with a young child, stand around a neighborhood block and contemplate their evening plans. By subtitling the urban dialect, the filmmakers immediately cut through the particulars of the situation to make these likable characters universally accessible. Hanging out and talking through their social options, they casually discuss a recent police bust and run through a list of various acquaintances. Despite a charmingly plucky quality that suggests Jay and Silent Bob exported to John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood,” the duo never lack authenticity.
If “Sweaty Betty” only focused on their exchanges, it would offer a serviceable non-fiction portrait of communal lifestyles among a demographic widely underrepresented in American movies today. But it turns out the directors are just getting started. The pair’s conversation gets interrupted by a man looking to get rid of his dog, which the boys gladly do in the hopes of selling the canine themselves. Then “Sweaty Betty” abruptly shifts to another even stranger occurrence across town: the antics of a ginormous pig named Miss Charlotte and her enterprising owner Rich (Floyd Rich III), as he engages in a comic attempt to get his pet out of a neighborhood stream. Back on the street, Rich proudly displays Miss Charlotte to the neighborhood while espousing dreams of turning her into a bonafide Redskins mascot by placing a plus-sized jersey across her back.
With these two odd scenarios in place, “Sweaty Betty” settles into its ambling exposition. While occasional glimpses of the cameraman’s reflection and various subjects’ tendencies to peer straight into the camera distract from the narrative, they also keep a fascinating level of ambiguity in play: A performative riff on its protagonists’ lives, “Sweaty Betty” uses a fragmentary approach to hint at various emotions and ideas rather than attempting to connect each dot.
In one of several enjoyable touches, the story’s chapter-based structure often gives way to endearing musical interludes. The soundtrack, a diverse (and probably unlicensed) range of selections that includes everything from Gucci Mane to Al Green and Rodrigo y Gabriela, alternates between silliness and pathos. The same movie that includes an extensive shot of a pig wandering stupidly toward the camera also includes a touching sequence where Scooby, who earlier revealed the tragic story of his baby mamma’s death, reads a bedtime story to his toddler. With this range of vibes in play, “Sweaty Betty” conveys a profound connection to the insular world inhabited by its leads.
Despite the absurdity of their intentions, it’s hard not to get drawn into these good-natured characters’ plights, one of which even manages to capture the attention of the local news. But “Sweaty Betty” doesn’t sugarcoat its setting, particularly during its later scenes, when Miss Charlotte winds up getting taken away from her owner and other complications develop. The finales to both storylines bring the peculiar missions to a sobering conclusion and much to contemplate. While Scooby says of Rico that they’re “livin’ two sides of the same story,” there’s no doubting that “Sweaty Betty” positions them in a fresh light.
“Sweaty Betty” premiered this weekend at the SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.