Psychological thriller Sweet River (original story and direction by Justin McMillan) explores the depths of grief and acceptance through a mother’s quest to locate the body of her murdered son...
...Hanna (Lisa Kay) travels to Billins, a small Australian town surrounded by sugar cane fields. Nested in the middle of nowhere, Billins hides dark secrets protected by other grieving parents. Hanna’s young son, presumed murdered by the hands of a local child killer (Jack Ellis), is the only missing body of several children. What follows is a journey for closure that leads Hanna down a path of ostracism, substance abuse, and the struggle to let go.
Hanna rents a cottage from farm owners John and Elleanor Drake (Martin Sacks; Genevieve Lemon). While Hanna vigorously follows Billin’s clues to locate her son’s body, Elleanor holds fast to her own grief over the loss of her adopted daughter, Violet. Elleanor is a symptom and symbol of the town’s inability to face loss after the double tragedy of serial killings, followed by a fatal bus crash which drowned children in the river. While John offers support for Hanna, Elleanor represents the distrust that Billins residents have for Hanna and her investigation.
Sweet River relies on a few overused horror tropes but executes them well.
Hanna faces the ghosts of red-eyed children who live in the sugar cane fields. The fields and children are reminiscent of the red-eyed, pale, demonic children of Children of the Corn. Even the stiffness of their bodies and furled brows draws comparison.
Many of the ghosts execute easy jump scares and use distorted sounds in place of screams. Fortunately, Sweet River avoids poor visual effects and unnecessary gore. It instead opts for use of darkness, silhouettes, and red lighting to amplify the scare factor.
Some of the more noticeable and excessive shots in the film are the overhead images of Hanna driving down empty highways of Billins in her old, yellow Volvo. The first few shots establish the town’s disconnection, remoteness, and the breadth of the sugar cane fields. Confusing, however, are the random close-ups of factory buildings early in the film. These scenes lead you to believe the river-side factories play a larger part in the film. These are likely only supplemental shots intended to hammer home the community’s desolate hopelessness.
Sweet River struggles to fill in a few details that would have polished the film’s rough edges. For example, it never makes clear why Hanna’s son was in Billins to begin with. As an “English city girl,” the film establishes that Hanna doesn’t live near Billins. Was her son abducted in her hometown and buried in Billins? Another potential plot hole comes from at least two scenes showing rocks aligned in spirals on the ground. Are they symbols of the spiraling nature of anger through grief? Are they simply aligned for fun by ghost children in the sugar cane fields? Their meaning is never explored, and there isn’t a large enough bridge to develop a conclusion from their appearances.
Still, the film establishes its unique place in psychological horror. Hanna’s relapse into alcoholism is a powerful story arc that viewers will no doubt connect with. Throughout the events of the film, Hanna’s appearance dulls. Her hair becomes disheveled, and her face becomes weathered and sullen. Her smile lines deepen, and it’s unclear whether the moisture on her brow is from the temperature or an overload of alcohol and painkillers.
Hanna's entire purpose of finding her son’s body and getting closure is challenged by the competing parts of her that want to continue to hold onto a grief that she has allowed to define her. Grief becomes a character in Sweet River, and the feeling is palpable.
Every actor gives an excellent performance in Sweet River, particularly Kay and Sacks. Kay brings to life the stages of mourning, from anger to questioning to acceptance. Sacks’s portrayal of John perfectly balances a struggle between keeping secrets in the dark and being a light for someone else--both his wife and Hanna, a stranger with whom he can connect through loss. John disagrees with his wife’s refusal to let go of their daughter, but he doesn’t judge her for it. He doesn’t judge Hanna for the way she handles her grief, either. During scenes in which he can see Hanna’s alcohol consumption and frantic state of mind, his expression and mannerisms never fall into judgmental territory.
Sweet River is memorable and tragically relatable and an impressive feature from McMillan.
Sweet River comes to VOD April 23rd from Gravitas Ventures.
By Amy Cerkas