Still from 1990's "Life is Sweet."

But zoom in and you’ll find that the heartbreaks and the disappointments are a great deal more painful than we’d like to believe. Currently, father Andy (Jim Broadbent) is a cook who barely makes enough money to get by in the first place but decides to buy a food truck and start a new business. Mother Wendy (a wonderful Alison Steadman) works as a baby clothing store employee and dancing instructor who both gets suckered into waitressing for a friend’s (Timothy Spall) tacky French restaurant and taking on the role of the family hype man. Daughters Nicola and Natalie (Jane Horrocks and Claire Skinner), both 22, couldn’t be any more different: Nicola is a perennially pissed misanthrope with bulimia and a lack of professional drive; Natalie is a boyish plumber who, despite never smiling, is perceived to be the family's happiest.

 

Just making it through the day is difficult for these people. Andy, worn down by such thankless work, is rarely affectionate and only seems to get real joy from taking on endeavors everyone knows won’t pan out. Wendy’s clearly exhausted from having to consistently be a cheerleader, but nonetheless knows she can’t put a plug in the constant commentary and the forced laughter. Nicola smothers her vulnerability with a poisonously antagonistic disposition; Natalie is bothered by the fact that nobody in her family seems to be content.

 

As such, Life is Sweet makes for a better-than-usual slice of life, a look inside the lives of people whose ordinary existences are actually extraordinary thanks to the emotions they radiate. Any other time, the events focused upon would be a bore, perhaps even monotonously depressing. But Leigh gazes at these people with affection that makes the watching of their routines worth it. As any effective kitchen-sink drama should, it turns the average Joe into someone as interesting a character in a Douglas Sirk melodrama. All we need, it seems, is a compassionately told story to back an individual for whom we grow to care.

 

Everyday occurrences in this family’s life — like Wendy’s hellacious first night waitressing at the aforementioned, severely tacky restaurant, Nicola’s dysfunctional affair with a man who loves her more than she does him (David Thewlis), and Andy’s slapstick workplace accident that’s as slightly funny as it is kind of bleak — become so much more than everyday occurrences. Leigh colors it all in a sad-funny tone that manifests into sharp tragicomedy.

 

I especially love the scene toward the end of Life is Sweet that sees a pair of characters finally pushing aside their bullshit to have a meaningful heart to heart. In it, Nicola, whose constant bitching and bitterness has plagued much of the film, is challenged by Wendy, who comes to the former’s room to question why she’s so hateful, why she’s so unwilling to participate in the causes she says she cares about.

 

This scene allows for us to finally understand this family. How they’re all miserable but are nonetheless willing to silence their sorrows for one another. What could be a scene that’s not a whole lot more than Wendy berating her daughter for being a lazy, loathsome cynic becomes entirely touching, a moment where Nicola finally realizes that there’s no reason to let her use her self-doubt to hold herself back any longer. Before leaving the room, Wendy makes this clear: “We don’t hate you!” she exclaims. “We love you, you stupid girl!”

 

And in that moment, we see the family turning over a new leaf, and it’s fitting that that turning proves itself a semi-finale. Because in the end, Life is Sweet decides that, while things can’t always be perfect for this family, there are so many opportunities to explore new paths that maybe, just maybe, sometimes life can be sweet. We just don’t reach that epiphany until the closing credits start. A

DIRECTED BY

Mike Leigh

 

STARRING

Alison Steadman

Jim Broadbent

Claire Skinner

Jane Horrocks

Timothy Spall

David Thewlis

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

1990

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 43 Mins.

Life is Sweet November 20, 2017        

ife is Sweet (1990), the third movie from the realist filmmaker Mike Leigh, has a nicely ironic title. After stepping into the day-to-day existences of its central characters, we find that the purported sweet lives being lived actually aren’t so blissful: as it turns out, they fucking suck.

 

The movie shines a light on a lower-middle-class British family always enduring some sort of struggle. From an outsider’s perspective, they look like a typical brood — a mother, father, and two twin daughters — going through ups and downs as courageously as anyone in their situation could. 

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