Netflix UK TV Review: Sweet Tooth
Martyn Conterio | On 18, Jul 2021
The Great Crumble isn’t a reminiscence about the best dessert ever, it’s the apocalyptic event setting up the storyline in Jim Mickle’s Netflix sci-fi fantasy, Sweet Tooth, based on the DC comic book by Jeff Lemire.
The series unfolds 10 years on from a mystery virus having ravaged the planet. In the aftermath, folk live in perpetual fear of repeat waves, and women begin to birth human-animal hybrids, which are shunned by society and hunted down by militia. When originally announced, way back in 2018, nobody could have foreseen our current global circumstance or the surreal atmosphere in which Sweet Tooth was filmed (down in New Zealand). At present, it feels like we’re living in a world only a hair’s breadth from the calamity unfolding on screen – give or take a few hybrid children with animal features and psychos with machine guns rounding them up for science experiments.
But Sweet Tooth is not Covidsploitation, unlike some recent projects. The opening episode, with its scenes of a community succumbing suddenly to illness and mass death, might cut to the bone, for sure, but the tone of the piece isn’t standard-issue glum dystopia; it establishes itself quickly as, well, sci-fi dystopia for all the family. The visuals are full of warmth and environments are brightly lit, recalling the little-seen Jean-Pierre Jeunet kid’s flick, The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet (2015), which may or may not have been a touchstone – Jeunet’s flick is another tale of a determined boy on a journey across America. The aesthetic and thematic tone dovetail splendidly and, while the show does acknowledge the negative impulses of humankind, the sorrows and traumas of life, the threat of violence all around, its sense of hope is Spielbergian, communicating to us that, even in our worst times, people act selflessly and with honour and find unexpected reserves of courage.
The tone is really important and not easy to pull off, meaning Mickle’s adaptation of what in comic form is far gloomier material, by all accounts, is suitable for nearly all age groups, as strange as it sounds. As viewers we are invited to tag along with the characters, as they undertake a richly emotional trip through the majestic mountains and prairies of the American hinterland. It’s a bit like The Wizard of Oz (1939), and references appear several times to the MGM classic too, but it also guides the series in how it contrasts freaky beats and moments with a lighter touch, ultimately making it audience-friendly enough not to alienate or overly disturb youngsters. It’s a question of tone and purpose, and Sweet Tooth finds a balance just right.
In Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, there lives a boy named Gus (Christian Convery). He spends his days in woodland seclusion with his father, whom Gus calls Pubba (Will Forte). The father instils in the little boy with deer antlers and deer ears to be fearful of the outside world and strangers, in general fretting about the lad’s safety. A bizarre effect of the outbreak is children born with animal features. All of them are mute, bar Gus, and another kid we’re introduced to, Wendy (Naledi Murray), who can speak. When tragedy strikes, upsetting the bucolic harmony of Gus’s innocent life in the forest, he undertakes a perilous search for his absent mother.
That’s all we’ll say about the plot because the great joy of this series is how connections between disparate and far-flung characters are made. Where Mickle and his team of creatives further strike gold is the casting. Sweet Tooth is hinged on emotional connection and forging alliances and bonds, so they had to cast it perfectly. And boy oh boy, did they. Convery’s performance is all pluck and inner resolve. Nonso Anozie as Big Man, a mysterious chap with a troubled past – who meets Gus and, despite initial antagonism becomes his sworn protector – is another ace in the deck. Add to this Adeel Akhtar as a perpetually nervous British scientist, stressed out by the need to keep a secret, Stefania LaVie Owen as Bear, the female leader of a young adult pro-animal “army”, and Dania Ramirez as Aimee Eden, a woman who cut herself off from the outside but is slowly drawn back into reconnecting with others. The casting is so important to the success of the show simply because the direction in which it heads means you have to care deeply about their lives and fates. And it’s a guarantee you will.
If James Brolin’s pleasingly folksy voiceover narration provides a crucial bit of scene-setting ambience, Will Forte’s small but pivotal role as Pubba is triumphant. The actor is so good, he makes you miss him as much as Gus does. Pubba isn’t the idealistic depiction of fatherhood we assume, and we get to his surprising backstory later on, and his fortuitous connection to Birdie (Amy Seimetz).
Mickle’s background is in horror, but he’s always made sure his films feature compelling moods, excellent actors and genre stories that reveal unexpected depths. This is his first work for a streaming service – and his second foray outside cinema, after Hap and Leonard (made for Sundance TV) – but the scope here is far bigger and aimed at a general audience. Sweet Tooth is gorgeously imagined and grandly presented. It’s got a big heart, it’s dark without being nasty, it’s got a terrific story to tell and deserves to be as big as Stranger Things.
Sweet Tooth is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.