“Sweet Girl” is one of the most outstanding films of 2021.

As an opportunity to crack a plot twist, keen viewers will seize any clue a film director generously provides. In Sweet Girl, the film showcases itself with a theme like films of past, where a man seeks revenge for his family after being heavily wronged. Audiences aren’t expecting a twist within vengeance tropes like this. They’ve been conditioned by formulaic stories where the male hero avenges a wrongdoing upon the film’s climax, setting off into the sunset with satisfaction in the aftermath. But revenge is sweet, and Sweet Girl elevates itself from predecessors of this sub-genre to a shocking reveal of great magnitude that’s sure to surprise the most razor-sharp cinematic spectator. Unless given a thought-provoking starting point – a symbol, event, detailed synopsis – if an audience member goes into Sweet Girl cold, the film will provoke dropping jaws with bugged-out eyes amid exhilarating thrills that subvert the traditional formula for a revenge film.

Isabela Merced in Sweet Girl (2021). Netflix.

It’s irrelevant whether spectators find plausibility in Rachel Cooper’s (Isabela Merced) successful quest for revenge. To doubtfully think that a young woman could embark on such a ruthless, fearless journey of murder and mayhem stems from the distorted cultural notion that fallaciously assumes the female species are the weaker sex. 24 months of strenuous mixed martial-arts training, in conjunction with a soul angered with pure passion and aggression, is more than sufficient for building strong neuropathways in Rachel Cooper’s mental state. Any human being, under these dire circumstances, can use the skills gained in combat training; especially a dynamic and determined young woman with wrongfully deceased parents. If it wasn’t for deep-rooted government corruption in conjunction with a corporation’s consumer capitalist agenda, Rachel’s parents would be alive. These aren’t the only forces that drive her to seek justice. She’s guided by a spirit, which adds a sublayer of esoteric mysticism to this revenge film.

Isabela Merced in Sweet Girl (2021). Netflix.

Brian Andrew Mendoza, with writers Gregg Hurwitz and Philip Eisner, granted viewers subtle clues leading up to the films jarring plot twist that helped seal the story in an epic climax at PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The filmmakers’ starting points of revelation were prevalent throughout the first two acts, but intentionally unclear for viewers to crack the code. This opened an arena for a shocking reimagining of the film once its revealed in the 3rd act. One can’t help but recall The Sixth Sense (1999) and show reverence to M. Night Shyamalan for paving the utilization of a cinematic technique: spirits and ghosts functioning amid society who appear to be living humans. When the audience learns that Ray Cooper (Jason Momoa) carried-out acts of vengeance vicariously through his daughter Rachel, the doubtful questions proposed of the films implausibility’s are answered, resulting in a massive payoff.

Isabela Merced and Jason Momoa in Sweet Girl (2021). Netflix.

It’s apparent that Brian Andrew Mendoza directed the film with meticulous preparation in his dramatic blocking. Shot angles are framed with precision as a painter would stroke his canvas. Subjects out-of- focus within a shallow depth-of-field appear blocked with significance to the emotional intensity of any given scene. The cliched elements of films with similar dramatic themes have been flipped and cinematographed in reverse. As Rachel sings to her dying mother in the hospital, Ray Cooper exhibits his internal pain with disinvolvement. Driven by emotional turbulence, tremendous degrees of anguish drive Ray’s movement in retreat, outside of the hospital room and into the hallway. This is spawned by his realization of losing his wife, Amanda (Adria Arjona). When such emotional intensities are high, directors usually angle the camera with extreme close-ups to capture the anguish expressed on the actors’ face. Mendoza reverses this technique with a skillful and appropriate variation by creating an arena where Jason Momoa can freely roam down the hall, using a wide-angle lens that makes him appear to move faster as he screams. Ray Cooper is tormented with pain, falling to his knees, as a dramatic musical score heightens on the soundtrack. In this scene, Jason Momoa’s long-hair serves as a shield he hides behind; a form of protection to conceal his sadness. The audience knows he’s sobbing, and Brian Mendoza proves that a close-up of his eyes is unnecessary, resulting in a powerful effect.

Jason Momoa in Sweet Girl (2021). Netflix.

Isabela Merced has a bold stage presence with such captivating expressions causing spectators to gaze. It’s important to note, the gaze isn’t lecherous. Nor is it a matter of beauty, any more than it is a viewer witnessing her genuine expression of the human condition exhibited on-camera. Viewers are mesmerized by her depiction of honest compassion, and Mendoza capitalizes on this by splicing many of her reactionary shots. These shots prove to be more affective than the mere utterance of dialogue. Her reactions become a catalyst for the audience. Spectators become one with her ripostes and expressions. Her cheers, fears and tears become the viewers own. Even in the first two acts, where Ray Cooper is the lead – supposedly carrying the film – Rachel’s shadow steals the show, supporting her transition of becoming the protagonist amid the 3rd act. Isabela Merced isn’t acting; she’s doing and being. She’s clearly conscious and present in her performance. She accomplishes this without succumbing to the method of character acting within a morphed personality. It appears she’s more aligned with the Meisner technique, alert; present. Her truth brings plausibility to the films shocking reveal, making viewing Sweet Girl even more worthwhile.

Isabela Merced and Jason Momoa in Sweet Girl (2021). Netflix.

Brian Mendoza provides subtle clues for the audience to at least question certain elements of character behavior in the film. When Ray infiltrates the UNICEF event, he grabs a caterer’s uniform from the women’s clothing rack. This is clearly emphasized in Mendoza’s camera angle, providing the audience with a hint. After the train stabbing, when we first see Ray, his reflection is presented as a shadow in the window, like a ghost.  Moreover, considering Jason Momoa’s physiological mass as a human, one would expect his dominance in fights, finding it implausible that smaller opponents could contend with him. It all comes full circle when viewers realize it wasn’t Ray engaging in the fights, but Rachel. Mendoza was showing us Ray’s soul channeled through his daughter’s body. He was fighting vicariously through her as a kindred spirit. And the very first shot viewers are shown, 24 months after the train stabbing, is Rachel training MMA in a boxing ring. Her trainer remarks, “Just like your dad.” Mendoza immediately gives the audience a clue to allude to the possible notion that her dad has passed-away.

Adria Arjona in Sweet Girl (2021). Netflix.

These sublayers are what make Sweet Girl one of the most outstanding films of 2021. The film takes a standard revenge sub-genre and political conspiracy theme while adding a shocking spiritual twist. Steven Price’s musical score provokes the proper emotions for the spectator, and Mendoza clearly exhibits a distinct taste, inspiring audiences and filmmakers alike, by telling a story that contains a melancholic vibe and a bittersweet theme about the past and its affect on the present. Humans are victims of circumstances and products of environmental conditioning. That fine line, the thin layer of transition, where a daughter switches roles to takeover as the mastermind of her family. The torch is passed on, and her life as the decision maker begins.

written by ardalan pourvali

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