Spoilers ahead for Sweet Girl.
The logline for Sweet Girl is,
“A man vows to bring justice to those responsible for his wife's death while protecting the only family he has left -- his daughter.”
For the most part, this is true. Sweet Girl centers on Ray Cooper, a man consumed by revenge after big pharmaceutical company BioPrime shelves the life-saving medicine for his wife, who is dying of cancer. After she dies, Ray sets out to kill BioPrime’s CEO and ensure whoever had a hand in his wife’s death suffers. What follows is a years-long warpath during which multiple assassins try to kill him, the FBI gets involved, and his daughter Rachel -- the titular “Sweet Girl” -- is dragged along for the ride.
For the first two acts, this movie recycles the tired revenge trope: a dad/husband must avenge the death of his wife/daughter. It seems this film is yet another hypermasculine revenge flick. The central protagonist is a violent male who sets out to avenge his wife and protect his daughter, the former of which is fridged in the first ten minutes of the movie. This was frustrating to watch because of the way women are used only as props to bolster the male protagonist’s story. Amanda Cooper only exists to die and send Ray on his path toward vengeance. Rachel is only there to keep Ray human and give him someone to protect. Ray Cooper is a stagnant character, stuck in his ways and certainly heading for doom. As soon as he makes his first kill, you begin thinking that this can only end badly.
However, the third act twist changes everything: it turns out that, for most of the movie, Ray was truly Rachel. What!? Let’s back up. When the assassin showed up and stabbed both Ray and the VICE journalist, both of them died. The movie then timeskips to two years later. From this point on, every time Ray is onscreen, he is nothing more than a figment of Rachel’s imagination. Rachel, so overcome with trauma (and possibly suffering from other mental illnesses), assumes the form of her father in her mind in order to cope with his death. Now an orphan, she must take care of herself and imagines her father is the one seeking revenge, allowing her to remain the innocent child -- his "sweet girl" -- who needs to be taken care of, just like how her life used to be.
The twist is bonkers and definitely doesn’t realistically make sense. This was most likely a story choice made for nothing more than shock value (and it is quite a shock, winning Sweet Girl plenty of attention from the internet). Yet, it does turn this film into a bit of a feminist movie. If you view the film by centering Rachel, this becomes a female-led story about a young girl seeking vengeance against big pharmaceutical companies and major politicians who have destroyed her family and probably countless others. It’s a much more interesting and nuanced tale than the logline suggests. This also gives this movie a huge rewatchability factor so you can go back and look for the clues that Ray was really Rachel the whole time. The filmmakers actually do set up the twist with foreshadowing, like when Rachel nearly chokes her opponent while training in the exact same manner that "Ray" kills BioPrime's CEO later on. The opening narration of the movie hints at everything to come:
"Parents and their children... where do we stop and they begin?"
In every fight scene with “Ray”, Rachel disappears. Rachel uses her father’s form to allow her to be violent and angry, perhaps because she feels she can’t be those things in her own body, or because she wants to separate this violence from herself in order to maintain her youthful innocence. This is why she reappears after "Ray"’s fights to look at him with disappointment or scold him for his choices; she’s disappointed in herself for becoming this way. She also uses her father’s form as a way to be with him again because she misses him so much. Early on, she states that her memories of her mother are fading. Keeping her father alive in her mind may be a way of avoiding having the same thing happening to him.
At first, the protagonist change from Momoa is Merced is jarring. Momoa is one of those actors that simply oozes likability, making him the best thing about this film (before Isabela Merced takes over as lead). There’s something about the way Momoa presents his masculinity -- maybe it’s his long hair often tied up in a pink hair tie, or the way he is unabashedly physically and verbally affectionate with his daughter, or his powerful expression of emotions beyond anger (like grief and love) -- that make him a well-rounded, charming male protagonist. So, when the story switches from centering Momoa’s character to Merced’s, it’s a little disappointing to see Momoa disappear from the narrative.
However, Merced picks up right where he left off in a near-seamless switch. Merced manages to exude the same physical confidence that Momoa has as well as the same unbridled rage -- even more so on the latter. She gives a compelling portrayal of a traumatized, grief-stricken, vengeful young woman of great physical strength and emotional endurance. Merced’s acting chops are best on display when she confronts Diane Morgan and debates killing her. When Diane admits, “Whoever has the most money wins,” (a poignant commentary on real-life politics) you can see the utter disappointment fill Merced’s expression. She completely steals the last act, making the last twenty minutes her movie. It’s a shame that the rest of the film couldn’t be hers, too. Even if “Ray” was technically Rachel the entire time, the person the audience sees onscreen is Jason Momoa. We only get to see Rachel be a badass for twenty minutes, but this movie might have been so much better had Rachel been the lead from the start.
Sweet Girl may be a cheap subversion of the classic revenge trope, but in the end, it’s technically a feminist revenge film. While “Ray” is the lead for the most part, Rachel completes the quest. She kills every person who wronged her family and exposes Diane's corruption, getting the closest she can to closure. The film’s casual diversity is also greatly appreciated. The family and the one kind FBI agent are all POC. We need more movies like this that center POC in popular movie genres.
Sweet Girl is streaming now on Netflix.