Everyone has a thing that they look for before deciding if they want to engage with a piece of art. It could be the cover of an album that lures them in, the style of brush strokes crafting a painting, or a member of the creative team of a film. It can really be anything that gets you in the door, but then it’s up to the art itself to keep you hooked. For me, it’s a compelling story that draws me to a film; it’s a logline that tells me just enough to pique my curiosity without telling me everything. Thus is the case for director Ernar Nurgaliev’s Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It (Zhanym, ty ne poverish), a film which promises hilarity amid escalating chaos as a trio of friends must survive gangsters, a woman in the mood for love, and a maniac on the hunt. This is, most assuredly, a horrific description, but it’s the way the film plays those horrors for laughs that Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It becomes a film which must be seen.
Dastian (Daniyar Alshinov) is on the cusp of fatherhood, his wife Zhanna (Asel Kaliyeva) due to give birth any day now. He’s excited to become a father, but his wife’s constant belittling pushes him to the brink, causing him to make up an excuse to go fishing with two old friends from high school. Delighted at the chance to reconnect, the three attempt to go fishing, despite possessing no experience with it, planning to spend the day relaxing and enjoying the outdoors. Fate, it seems, would have other plans as the three accidentally come upon a murder and must escape the scene before they suffer a similar fate. With each step that they seem to get from the gangsters, they move toward a different sort of trouble, until their’s becomes a story which defies the rules of logic.
When a film has enough writers to warrant the use of “et al” as a descriptor, a dark pallor is often cast over the production well before a single frame is seen. There seems to be a presumption of too many cooks, which has, on more than one occasion, ruined a soup by its own hand, so it’s not a presumption worth ignoring. For every rule, though, there should be an exception and Sweetie fits that particular bill. It’s silly, grotesque, playful, macabre, joyous, and sad all at once and in a manner which never takes itself so seriously. Much of this is due to the fine editing from Nurgaliev and the score from Nazarbek Orazbekov which are both instrumental in maintaining a lightness to the story so that, even when people have their hearts blown off by a shotgun or worse, you’ll be giggling instead of shrieking. Orazbekov’s scoring is often light, emanating a playfulness assisting the events on screen from feeling too dire or terrifying. This isn’t to suggest that the violence isn’t played straight in its brutality, it’s that the entire film is more of a road-comedy-gone-rogue than a horror film, which the music conveys with ease. Assisting with that conscious messaging is the editing, a crucial aspect of the rhythm of the film as it jumps from action to reaction and back again. It’s all about what the audience sees or, more importantly, what Nurgaliev wants us to see and when, that makes so much for the horrible situations feel awkwardly hilarious. The audience really shouldn’t be giggling as the maniac character approaches the gangsters one at a time, yet there’s so little implying true consequence that we’re able to go along for the ever-escalating ride.
Editing and sound do a fine job conveying Nurgaliev’s ireverent tone, but it’s the performances which really sell it. Not so much Alshinov and his co-stars, as they have to be the straightmen to the insanity, but everyone around them. It’s the gang leader who speaks in proverbs, gently guiding his team to find someone who stole from them while two of his men bicker about whether one could actually kill someone. “Bickering” is the best descriptor as that’s what it is. It’s not an argument of ideas (example: the “no tipping” scene in Reservoir Dogs) but sibling-like, get-under-your-skin-because-you-can nagging. It’s the gang member who’s there just to be supportive, passing out at the first sign of violence. Each of these are indicators are people playing at being the heavy without any real intent of being one. This is what makes the maniac character such a force by comparison. This actor is entirely believable for the skills his silent killer possesses, not just in his precision, but his speed and stealth. As written, Nurgaliev et al have concocted a wraith. We don’t giggle because the actor isn’t scary. We giggle because we’re glad we’re not on the receiving end of his vengeance. Admittedly, the side story involving the lovelorn girl seems like a way to speed up the resolution of the inevitable conflict between Dastian and his friends, it’s a clever way to ratchet the ridiculousness one more level while the other two get into a trouble all their own.
Despite the maimings and mayhem, Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It is a restorative cinematic experience. It offers comfort in the same way films like We’re the Millers (2013), Paul (2011), Fanboys (2009), and Without a Paddle (2004) take the well-worn road trip comedy and insert a little bit of genre zaniness to it. Don’t mistake low stakes for low investment as you’ll care for the main three and feel all kinds of warm fuzzies for Dastian as he tries to get back to his wife. Sweetie wants you to have a good time, that much is clear, and, on that, it’s a clear mission accomplished.
Screening during the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.