The DSLR camerawork in “Sweaty Betty” lingers, follows, and edges in where it can, across the row houses of Washington D.C. We only glimpse the man operating it, but the neighborhood’s close-knit, largely black population treats him as a friend and ally – especially when it’s game day and the Washington Redskins need some recorded support. Not quite found footage, not quite documentary, local directors Joe Frank and Zack Reed’s first film may well be the most warmhearted blend of those genres to date. Following two single fathers, and a 1,000 pound pig and its owner on the other side of town, it tackles how communities glue together from day to day – in passing conversation and slight, pivotal shifts.
Reed and Frank have described the film as having actually happened, “more or less”. Given the events that transpire (an untrained dog is dropped off with two friends and single fathers, Rico and Scooby, and an enormous pig, Miss Charlotte, is touted by her owner Floyd as the ‘Redskins’ next mascot), that claim is not a stretch of disbelief. Over roughly ten chaptered scenes, the film roots itself in environment and ambience, catching stretches of conversation— subtitled, as the pace is rapid and the slang comes quick — before a beat of silence acts as a quick transition into the next encounter.
“It ain’t so easy out here, but it ain’t as hard,” Rico says to the camera in the opening scene, a tour around his apartment that features blown-up images of money covering the furniture (and his wardrobe). The line comes almost as a mission statement for the entire film, as it completely shirks off notions of a cliché, tragedy-filled street narrative, while still suggesting those elements are present (the death of Scooby’s girlfriend and mother of their child is hinted at briefly, while Rico and two women discuss a recent drug bust that nabbed a friend of theirs).
The film’s aesthetic is a peculiar thing: on one hand, from the technically amateurish presentation — iMovie title cards, muffled audio, and jittery cinematography — it’s clear this is Frank and Reed’s first stab at filmmaking. But the material is so oddly staged, and the characters so warm and compelling, that it stands on its own apart from narrative or traditional doc experiences.
For instance, Scooby’s daughter Zo-Zo is the film’s hidden gem, and Frank and Reed know it. “Two going on twenty-five” is how Scooby describes her, and sure enough, they capture a scene in which she attempts to quiet everyone down and sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” only to grow frustrated and storm out and “clean the kitchen if anyone needs me.” It’s a scene so charming, Frank and Reed decide to present it twice.
The soundtrack is also alternately slapdash and effective — Rodrigo y Gabriela and Al Green sit alongside a swath of rap tunes, taking over abruptly and turning the narrative into a music video for a short spell. It adds to the surreal, celebratory, and surprise melancholy mood of these average outings, and definitely pushes toward cohering Frank and Reed’s approach as a whole.
Apart from Scooby and Rico, the Floyd storyline is more of a town survey, as we catch the reactions of passers-by to Miss Charlotte, who is hauled around wearing a Redskins jersey in the back of his pick-up truck. The question of why Miss Charlotte should be the next Redskins mascot is never raised, but she turns heads at the very least. These scenes are often very funny, and revealing – people speak more about themselves when talking about something else, in this case a gargantuan pig, and the D.C. kids, shop owners, and families map out an informal look at the neighborhood’s struggles and pleasures as a result.
Having actually happened, anyone can source the development of Miss Charlotte’s story, and it’s in that storyline where you realize her emblematic nature. She is ridiculous, out-of-place, and also a hazard to city ordinances, but the entire neighborhood knows her, or has heard of her. Community comes from strange places, and “Sweaty Betty” echoes that strangeness to stick in the mind afterwards as a joyfully unique debut. [B]