Fishing doesn’t have the best reputation in fiction. Going off literature and film and Dick Cheney, one gets the impression it’s boring, it’s vaguely cruel, and it mostly serves as an excuse for men to get away from their demanding brides.
That excuse was the basis for plenty of 90s old bro comedies – Ann Margaret was never invited to the fishing cabin in Grumpy Old Men, Danny Glover and Joe Pesci made it a boy’s thing in Gone Fishin’. It’s certainly the excuse Dastan (Danair Alishnov) uses to escape his pregnant wife and shrewish mother-in-law in Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It, Kazakh director Yernar Nurgaliyev’s horror-comedy.
Dastan flees his wife after an argument, heading out into the wilderness with the guys. But their fishing trip goes awry when they witness a hit being carried out on a local farmer. That’s to say nothing of the deranged, seemingly unstoppable killer that’s after both parties.
Dastan’s friends are fairly stock, but it’s more important that they’re likable – and they are. Alishnov and his friends quickly create a bond no more or less meaningful than those seen in Animal House or Superbad, and in considerably less time.
The gangsters are much more interesting, including a leader who carries a book of proverbs, his itchy-trigger finger brother and an overweight henchman who faints at the sight of violence. They’re no more archetypes than the friends, but their character quirks actually pay off – often gruesomely.
It’s plenty wacky, and it smartly refuses to rely on cliches like no cell reception. Instead, real-life intrudes. It’s not a bad area, only the police operator is overloaded with calls about a local protest. But Sweetie‘s more interested in blowing off limbs and impaling torsos. And it’s a much more entertaining work for it.
Sweetie excels more as straight horror than horror-comedy, despite some genuinely great visual gags that get appropriately dark. Old sight gags like a man’s pants being ripped off by a fishing line are appropriately updated to their violent extremes. But it’s nothing compared to some of the unsettling, Texas Chainsaw-like backwoods horror it teases. It suggests more than it delivers, but the potential of more harder-edged material from Nurgaliyev is interesting; particularly because he handles the gritty daylight thriller aspect with aplomb.
When the jokes do work, however, they work exceptionally well, no matter how silly they appear at the start. A tense and fun Looney Tunes-Esque hiding sequence is absolutely inspired, and there are some situations the film milks for all they’re worth. You have to admire that kind of commitment.
Ultimately, Sweetie culminates in a twist I honestly didn’t see coming, turning the film into a surprisingly sweet story about friendship. It’s unfortunate that the twist is treated more like an aside than a reveal, but with such an overcrowded playing field, it still has some kick to it. And the film sells its thematic content far better and less trite than recent Western efforts – if a little simplistically.
There are plenty of cautionary tales about straying from your responsibilities. Plenty of them are twisted, but few manage to be both funny and tense throughout. At a brisk 86 minutes, there’s hardly any fat. Not everything works, but it’s a wonderful example of the quirky delights Fantasia brings every year.
The Fantasia Festival runs virtually from Aug. 5 – 25, 2021. Get your tickets here!
Kenny Hedges is Carbon-based.