Don’t let that title throw you. Joe Frank and Zachary Reed’s rambling neighborhood comedy Sweaty Betty isn’t dopey or sweaty, and I don’t recall meeting anyone in it named Betty. There is a thousand-pound hog named Miss Charlotte, decked out in Washington Redskins gear and paraded around to tailgaters, but that vision’s just one of those things that happens in America — real people getting up to real strangeness, because what else are they going to do?
The film is an improvised study of exurban life, a no-stakes hangout pleasure starring real folks from the row houses of Cheverly and Kentland, Maryland, low-income communities just outside of Washington, D.C. It’s shot on commercial-grade cameras from Best Buy, and everyone in it is playing themselves, improvising on situations dreamed up by the directors but taken from their own lives. The hog-wrangler, Floyd (Floyd Rich III), truly kept Miss Charlotte in his backyard, and truly campaigned to get her recognized as an NFL mascot — certainly a more tasteful one than that team has now.
These young men live in outskirts communities built a couple of generations back, primarily African American, lacking recent development, not urban nor rural, just paved. The film’s long second scene features two likable young men, both fathers, ragging on their scant restaurant choices but finding some excitement in the rumor that a pizza joint’s coming in to Cheverly. “I won’t fuck with that,” one says, meaning it in the admiring sense. Finally: pizza!
That scene, like those guys’ day, drifts past for quite a while without incident. Sweaty Betty (which won the award for Best Narrative Feature at 2015’s Brooklyn Film Festival) is unrushed, and its directors rarely cut, even when their own shadows edge into the frame. The men, Rico (Rico Mitchell) and Scooby (Seth Dubose), are young, have the day off, and know there’s something out there worth doing if only they can think of it. The filmmakers steep you in that feeling, too, enough so that it’s a jolt when the camera, handheld and free, whips around to the road where an SUV has pulled up. The driver hollers something about giving away a dog (“She done messed up my house!”), and just like that Rico and Scooby are in possession of a pit bull terrier on a homemade leash.
Like Rich, Rico and Scooby see in their animal the chance for a score. They could breed this handsome pup — they marvel that she’s “cocaine-white” — or maybe sell it for a couple hundred bucks.
Most of the film, then, follows everyone’s easygoing efforts at pet monetization: The young men buy a leash, get distracted by some young women, show the dog off to some neighbors, and then try to figure out where to put the dog while they go to a cookout. Miss Charlotte’s name, we learn, comes from E.B. White’s famous book, a fact that at first seems curious: Charlotte was the spider. But then, heartbreakingly, we learn that Miss Charlotte’s pig pal Lil Wilbur died a while back under mysterious circumstances. We see a cellphone clip of fat Charlotte and Wilbur sauntering along in happier times, and a photo of Wilbur’s corpse. Someone suggests that maybe poor Wilbur ate at Checkers, the lowest of the local fast-food places, but that’s as close as Sweaty Betty comes to politics or social problems. This isn’t hard-times reportage or a deep-dive ethnography. It’s a life-as-it’s-lived picture, a chance to meet and loiter with the people in the places the interstates zip past.
Everyone talks the way people in these neighborhoods talk, and the filmmakers choose to subtitle their subjects in case the rest of the world can’t keep up. Rico and Scooby may have a day and night wide empty in front of them, but they’re also presented as committed fathers and students, smart young men making some sacrifices and making the most of whatever this country might give them. Their story is warm and amusing, but it’s the story of the filmmakers — local residents themselves who scraped money from their day jobs to put Sweaty Betty together — that is most inspiring here. Their will and ambition are matched only by their eye for character, detail, and real-life hilarity.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the film’s setting as Hyattsville, Maryland. The film actually was shot near Hyattsville, in Cheverly and Kentland, also in Prince George’s County. A newscast excerpted in the film erroneously identifies Hyattsville as the setting.
Directed by Joe Frank and Zachary Reed
Breaking Glass Pictures
Opens January 8, Cinema Village