Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl (2016)

Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl first published by VODzilla.co

“That street with all the Victorians?” asks Beth (Quinn Shephard) upon hearing where her new friend Adele (Erin Wilhelmi) is staying in town. “Strange cats, those Victorians. You know what they used to do for fun? Dress up in weird costumes and pose for each other.Tableaux vivants. Can you imagine? Your great grandmother dressed up as a nymph, dancing around while everyone cheered. Crazy times.” 

These words, like everything in A.D. Calvo’s Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl, are made to count for more than just their surface meaning, reverberating with the stir of echoes – indeed, even the title is echoic. We may be in small-town America, but that reference to ‘Victorians’ conjures the world of classical gothic that Calvo has evoked with his tale of ghosts and uncanny secrets in a dark old house. And just as Beth’s words conjure the obsolete art form of a bygone generation, the film itself resurrects the aesthetics of the past through the retro stylings of the early Eighties (when it is mostly set). Meanwhile, the stately domicile where Adele now lives and works is itself a kind of tableau vivant – a place of stillness whose principal occupant, Adele’s ailing, agoraphobic old aunt Dora (Susan Kellerman), never comes out of her room and, unseen and barely heard, is a kind of absent presence in her own m(a)us(ol)eum. At one point Beth expressly compares Adele to the gothic heroine Jane Eyre, accommodating her own ‘mad woman in the attic’ – and the two young women, seeking amusement in the big quiet mansion, will play dress-ups in the basement, putting on ancient ‘weird costumes’ to become a continuing part of the tableau vivant themselves.

Adele is the sweet, sweet lonely girl of the title, shown in the film’s opening scene walking a country road all alone but for her Walkman. Her pregnant mother (Lainie Ventura), with half an eye on Dora’s legacy, pressures Adele into becoming Dora’s live-in carer. Not that much pressure is required – after all, Adele is eager to get away now that she is attracting unwanted attention from her mother’s leering boyfriend, and she has fond memories from her childhood of visits with her eccentric aunt. Yet Dora’s huge, quiet house also feels like a prison – and soon lonely Adele is seeking the company of local Beth beyond its walls, and even (despite Dora’s handwritten rule stipulating no house guests) bringing Beth home with her. 

Adele is seeking more than just friendship from Beth, and this Sapphic subtext is reechoed by an old black-and-white picture that Adele finds of a younger, happier Dora with another woman. History, it seems, is repeating itself – or perhaps the niece is assuming from her aunt a genetic inheritance of sexuality, betrayal, alienation and even madness, passed down to haunt each successive generation. Beth, it turns out, is a corrupting influence, turning sweet Adele bitter, and driving her towards greed, thievery and worse – and as we watch Adele’s story unfold as a life in crisis, in decline and in withdrawal, we come to understand, obliquely, how Dora may have ended up where and how she is. The future is already inscribed in the past.

To say more would be to give the game away, although in fairness Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl is a difficult film to spoil – for the creepy closing scenes are as ambiguous as they are irrational, and their disparate elements will be put back together by different viewers in different ways. What is clear, though, is that desire – for money, for love – leads both Dora and Adele to a sad, lonely place of disappointment and terminal heartache. It is this sense of decadent melancholy that Calvo’s film, uninterested in hackneyed jump scares or whizzbang effects, is pursuing – and on the way it takes us on a dark, disorienting trip through a family’s recurring history of sorrow and solitude.   

Summary: A.D. Calvo’s American gothic is a retro-styled mood piece haunted by the disappointments of desire.

© Anton Bitel