Where to start with a movie like “Sweet Girl?” Its co-screenwriter is Gregg Hurwitz, the scribe of the infamous 2017 feature “The Book of Henry,” and, really, “Sweet Girl” feels like a sister to that movie. Both features espouse a dark narrative rooted in the social issues of the day before a big right turn onto “Are You Kidding Me?” Avenue. Things get weird and that weirdness probably seemed unique to everyone involved.
The “sweet girl” in question is Rachel Cooper (Isabela Merced), the daughter of Ray Cooper (Jason Momoa). Ray and Rachel have been struggling in the wake of family matriarch Amanda’s (Adria Arjona) death from cancer. To add insult to injury, Amanda’s death could have probably been prevented had a generic drug been made available to her instead of being indefinitely delayed by a competing drug company led by Simon Keeley (Justin Bartha).
Yep, “Sweet Girl” is one of those “Big Pharma is killing people” movies not unlike the 2002 feature “John Q.” Then again, considering “Book of Henry” also had a cancer plotline maybe Hurwitz just is really into how the Big C can immediately craft tension and sympathy. That’s generally how it’s employed here. Amanda’s death is sad because, based on the opening credits wherein the family takes in nature, cuddles, and whisper-sings “Sweet Child of Mine,” she’s a beautiful good person. Without knowing anything about her, the audience is immediately supposed to say, “Isn’t this tragic?!”
And it certainly is filmed as such, especially watching young Merced sit next to her mother’s corpse, silently weeping. It’s more tragic this moment of intimacy is undone by Momoa’s Ray going out into the hallway and having a full-on Wolverine-esque outpouring of sadness. Overwrought is an understatement. He also takes the time to call into a (not MSNBC) news show where a (not) Rachel Maddow-esque figure just so happens to be interviewing Keeley and a senator, Diana Morgan (Amy Brenneman). Ray is so upset at Simon’s company that he threatens to murder him on national television.
With all this setup, “Sweet Girl” actually has several moments where, had it been in a different genre, there’d be a lot to impress. At one point, after Amanda’s death, the father and daughter are both mired in their own forms of depression. Ray has crafted a serial killer-esque yarnboard of info about Keeley, while Rachel is the caretaker. Momoa and Merced have such a fabulously darling chemistry that I desperately wanted this to be a drama about a father and daughter dealing with trauma. The two play and discuss things with such an ease that it’s almost upsetting to have a Vice reporter call Ray with claims of corruption that pull everything back into Action Land.
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But get pulled back in they are. Claims are made, people are stabbed, and a lot of time jumps happen in a very short span of time. (Seriously, we start out “Years earlier” then go “six months later” and “24 months later” in the first 20 minutes.) There’s a start-and-stop quality to the script that sees a few moments of quiet smothered by extended action scenes before everything stops and characters are trying to figure out what happens next.
Momoa isn’t actually stretching anything here, unless it’s a hamstring during a fight sequence. His Ray starts out as a soft husband and father, one who is just built like Jason Momoa. But like the action stars of the past, you know it’s only a matter of a time before this guy’s snapping necks and throwing punches. He reiterates time and again that he didn’t intend to kill anyone…he’s just really, really good at it. Much of this changes once the film’s “twist” is revealed, of which I won’t spoil the pure batshit insanity of it, but there’s probably someone who could complain that many of the scenes where Ray is in dangerous situations where people end up dead are intentional.
The true star, and the only reason “Sweet Girl” holds your attention for nearly 120-minutes is Isabella Merced. After impressing audiences’ in “Dora the Explorer,” Merced shows her range at a young age, whether that’s kicking ass in a boxing ring or contemplating how her father has affected her childhood. Again, like that Momoa/Merced cancer drama that doesn’t happen, had the movie wanted to tell us a story about Rachel Cooper, International Badass, I’d have been down for that (though the movie does telegraph its makers have watched “The Professional”). Instead, the film wastes her for much of the movie until the twist tries to wrench everything into giving her more agency.
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The movie tries hard to say Rachel and Ray are of one mind, from the fact that their names are similar to Momoa’s monotone narration about “parents and their children. Where do they end and we begin?” Just telling you that feels like a spoiler but it’s said in the first 10 minutes alongside the first (of two) times Rachel is referred to as “sweet girl.” Honestly, it feels like the title was such a last minute addition that the second time the term is used it’s an ADR line.
Merced is so good, actually giving this movie nuance and pathos, that you can see every other actor coasting around her. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo plays one of the assassins hunting Ray and Rachel. He’s solidly menacing, though you can see the script writing him like Anton Chigurh. A moment of solidarity between Ray and Garcia-Rulfo’s Santos could have gone down an interesting direction had it wanted to. Bartha is sufficiently whiny, while Brenneman is there to provide the film’s second “we already knew this” point that politicians can be corrupt.
“Sweet Girl” is dumb in all the ways you expect, and yet with Isabella Merced things feel understandable. It’s just frustrating that the twist undermines her, outside of being utterly weird. That being said, if they wanted to greenlight a “Sweet Girl 2” and give Merced her due, I’ll be waiting.