Sweet River

Sweet River (2020)

Justin McMillan’s Sweet River takes place in Billins, a small rural town in the north of New South Wales that has experienced more than its fair share of tragedy. A school bus swerved off the road into the river there, drowning all inside but the driver (played by Eddie Baroo, who also co-wrote the film with Marc Furmie), and rendering many of the local families suddenly childless and broken. Meanwhile troubled farmhand Leonard Simpkin (Jack Ellis) was secretly perpetrating a campaign of serial murders against the children of locals and non-locals alike, before he killed himself. Four bodies were unearthed around the property where Simpkin lived, but another of his presumed victims, Joey, has never been found. 

Now Joey’s mother Hanna (Lisa Kay), doubly marked as an outsider by origins both urban and English, arrives in town looking for some sort of closure, even as she also tries to rebuild a life that has, since Joey’s disappearance, been destroyed by the breakdown of her marriage and a retreat into substance abuse. As she rents a worker’s cottage for her stay, her neighbour John Drake (Martin Sacks) and his wife Elenor (Geneviève Lemon) are also going through different stages of mourning after the death of their young daughter Violet (Charlotte Stent). So despite repeated warnings from the local constable Wilkins (Rob Carlton) to leave, in a way Hanna fits right into this damaged community.

Billins is haunted not just metaphorically, but literally. For here, in a place of conspiratorial secrets and buried skeletons, the ghosts of drowned children emerge nightly from the river into the sugar cane fields, visiting their loved ones and punishing their enemies. The film opens with Hanna, not yet come to the town, waking with a start from a dream of drowning – in a scene which immediately introduces the suffocating power of her grief – but this is quickly followed up by a sequence of actual death by submersion, as Billins local James Lipton (Jeremy Waters), driving home drunk from a bender, hits a little girl in the road and is seized and drowned by something in the crop. Beneath the surface of this town’s recrimination and guilt, real danger lurks.

Somber and serious throughout, Sweet River presents both a woman and a town overwhelmed with sorrow and struggling to move on. All this comes with a strong element of gothic – the genre where the past uncannily persists. Scenes where Hanna visits Simpkin’s home are especially unnerving, with canted angles and creaking noises conjuring the harrowing history of the place – and one can also sense the influence of both Fritz Kiersch’s Children of the Corn (1984) and Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary (1989) in this story of rustic revenants bringing the coldest of comfort under the menacing leadership of a bitter male spirit (Jayden McGinlay). Yet another, altogether less supernatural inspiration, slyly evoked by this film’s title, is Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997), which shares Sweet River‘s preoccupations with small-town struggles in the wake of a tragic accident.

The ghosts that haunt Billins may be a palpable presence, but they also figure an entire community drowning in its own deep loss and abiding love. Bookended by the imagery of water and fire, this is a mature tale of conflicting elements and complicated emotions, of people stunted by grief yet slowly learning to resow fallow ground – and it is the sprinklings of genre which make Sweet River‘s psychological soil fertile with a final, bittersweet yield.

strap: Justin McMillan’s ghost story shows a mourning mother – and a rural Australian community – drowning in grief.

© Anton Bitel