3 out of 5
Directed by: A.D. Calvo
Retro horror, which does its thing by including mixed and match elements of a synthwave soundtrack, tracking lines on the film print, a 70s or 80s setting with appropriately styled font, nods to whichever genre/s to which your film is indebted – slasher, satanic panic, etc. – is… a thing. Horror has always kinda been mainstream, but then horror REALLY went mainstream a couple of decades back, slowly roping in more and more avowed fans, who are now old enough to make their own films and wink back to whatever they used to rent. So: retro horror. It can be cool, of course, but it can also very easily be style over substance. Even some entries which I’ve enjoyed have lost their footing behind their look; the plot and characters are there, but adherence to an aesthetic can also prevent a flick from truly setting out on its own.
Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl is an excellent example of how retro horror can be a backdrop to a film, informing it but not overtaking it. The simplicity of the implied 80s era – lead Adele (Erin Wilhelmi) wanders about town, listening to 70s tunes on her walkman – is an important counterpoint to the low-key sense of unease, and the lost relic title font and grainy cinematography, as well as director Calvo’s use of a voyeuristic horror flick point of view, peeking around corners and between cracks sets us in mind of a certain kind of movie without explicitly making the contents reflect that. The movie could have come from the time in which it takes place, which is a huge distinction from retro horror which is clearly of modern times, with a coat of nostalgia paint. And all of this adds up to an engrossing experience: quiet and rule-following Adele is caring for her agoraphobic, never-leaves-her-room grandmother, Dora, when she befriends Beth (Quinn Shephard), whose skin-bearing ensembles and edgy behaviors fit a “something different” stereotype that Adele begins to idolize. Soon enough, grandma isn’t being cared for, and Adele finds herself getting quite wrapped up with Beth…
See any horror in there? There isn’t. But Wilhelmi is entrancing to watch, communicating an enormous amount through expression and body language, with Calvo’s camera somewhat following hand-in-hand, as hemmed in as Adele’s personality, dotting scenes with little off-kilter notes that sync up with her insecurities: things found out of place in the house, odd camera angles. As Adele opens up a bit with Beth, Calvo keeps the latter at a distance, mysterious, and almost unreal. Dreamlike. Until the dream starts to crumble in the film’s final portion.
Spoiler: there’s no big payoff in Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl, and that’s a plus and a minus. The core character drama is compelling, and masterfully executed, captured with the kind of dreary creepiness of Picnic at Hanging Rock. It needs a payoff. Some bits of the supernatural that scratch at the edges of the flick become rather confused in the film’s conclusion, and these don’t need a payoff – I think the creepiness works rather well kept as vague as it is. But while, visually, these two concepts played together well, the movie doesn’t really wind them together storywise, and as the movie shifts to focus on Adele and the house, it sort of cheapens what occurred with Beth, and robs us of a proper denouncement (or deconstruction) of their relationship. However, by not adding some type of clear and hackneyed “this is what’s going on!” explanation to the increasingly surreal events, it does allow room to assess the movie’s point of view in various ways, hanging on to its mostly immersive sensibilities up through the creepy photo and music that backs the credits.