What is it about little films—personal dramas and the like—that bores me to tears? What is it about period pieces and early twentieth-century Americana that leaves a bad taste in my mouth? And what is it about Sweet Land—a small personal dramatic comedy set in post-World War I Minnesota—that manages to overcome these shortcomings to charm and impress me? Quiet, dignified humor and gorgeous cinematography certainly help, But I think what really won me over about this film was that it knows what it is—a love story about two people who lived a long time ago—and it doesn't try to overextend itself. It doesn't have delusions of grandeur.
In the spirit of full disclosure I should point out here that Ali Selim, who directed Sweet Land, is a professor at MCAD. I've met and spoken to him briefly. He is a soft-spoken man with tired eyes. He looks like a director. I submit to you that although this may be seen as a conflict of interest, this point of intersection with my own life invited me to cast an even more critical eye over the film, looking for mistakes I wouldn't have made, had I been in Selim's position. This is his first feature film, and I noticed a few mistakes similar to those I made in Wholesale Souls. Most notably, the beginning is jumpy, flitting in between three different time periods in what at first seems to be an unnecessary complication of things. However, by the end of the film, all is tied together and all three time periods resolve nicely.
Selim has, until now, worked primarily as a director of commercials. This shows very clearly in his film, and in no bad way. Successful commercials employ extremely efficient storytelling. They say only what they mean to say, and they can make a tube of toothpaste into the most exciting thing you have ever seen. Had Sweet Land been directed by a more standard-fare independent filmmaker, it would have been incredibly dull, but Selim is able to move the story along without rushing it or compromising its subject.
One of the most interesting and ultimately rewarding directorial choices Selim makes is to leave large portions of the film in untranslated German as spoken by one of the main characters, a German immigrant. No lapsing into English, no overdubbing, no subtitles. Nothing. A director of weaker constitution might have given up on such a concept early into the film, but the fact that it is consistent throughout is what makes it work. Of course, for this to work requires a spot-on performance, and Elizabeth Reaser delivers it and more. She gives the entire movie an energetic personality, something lacking from most period pieces.
Sweet Land is charming and succinct—poetic in its simplicity, exuding the same quiet confidence as the community it depicts. I am tremendously proud that an MCAD faculty member has produced a work of this caliber.
A NOTE ON WHERE TO WATCH: Sweet Land closed in Colorado last week and the film is at this point in an extremely limited theatrical release, playing in Landmark theaters around the country through the end of February. Check www.sweetlandmovie.com to see if you've been blessed with an upcoming showing in your neighborhood. Otherwise, wait for the DVD. The film has been getting some much-deserved attention (two Independent Spirit nominations and countless good reviews), and so it seems likely that when the DVD comes out (probably sometime this spring) it will wind up in a Blockbuster near you. Or you can do like I plan to and just buy the DVD. It's absolutely worth it.