Sweet Tooth reminds us of the power of father figures

An ode to the tough guy

In this edition of Scene & Heard, a weekly newsletter where a guest writer reflects on just one scene from a recent Netflix release, film critic Travis Johnson reflects on Gus and Jepperd’s unlikely relationship in Sweet Tooth — and how it reminds him of his own upbringing.
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SCENE

For me, the crux of Sweet Tooth comes down to this scene in episode four. A tribe of children who dress as animals (it’s a whole thing) have captured half-deer/half-boy hybrid kid Gus (Christian Convery) and his somewhat reluctant protector, Jepperd (Nonzo Anozie).

The tribe wants to protect Gus, but they’re fixing to kill Jepperd, who they’ve tied to a chair. Jepperd used to be a member of a militia at the dawn of the show’s post-apocalyptic setting, and he did some bad things. But Big Man, as Gus calls him, is a good guy.

“He made me a costume so people would like me, and he bought me things he thought I’d like," Gus pleads. “And he wakes me up when I’m having bad dreams. And he never tried to sell me. He tried to help me. He may not be very good at it but…at least he tried.”

The tribe are unmoved and drag Jepperd away. Even as Gus throws his arms around his surrogate dad and begs them not to kill him.

Hits me like a freight train.


HEARD

It doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to figure out that, as the son of a single mother, there’s a big old dad-shaped hole in my psyche. Except it’s not quite as dramatic — it takes a village and all that. I had grandparents, and I had (have — he’s still around) my uncle, Dennis.

I can draw a direct line back from a lot of my adult obsessions to six-year-old me climbing up on the bookcase and looking at the covers of books I was way too young to read.

Dennis was a coal miner. He never finished high school — not unusual for a working class guy of his vintage — but he made decent money in the mines and he set about educating himself. Not in any formal or structured way, but by sheer dint of buying a crapload of books. It was a bit of a scattershot approach, but it worked.

What it meant for me was that, growing up working class in Collie, Western Australia, I was surrounded by culture in a way a lot of my peers weren’t. The Russian classics were on the shelf, and I was encouraged to read War and Peace when I was in single digits. So too was Jaws. So was Stephen King’s Carrie, come to think of it — I can draw a direct line back from a lot of my adult obsessions to six-year-old me climbing up on the bookcase and looking at the covers of books I was way too young to read.

Dennis also bought the first VCR I’d ever seen and gave me my first movie of my very own — Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. And if you think that explains why I’m a film critic 40 years later, just hang up a shingle and start charging $200 an hour, because you’ve nailed it, doc.

But Dennis was still Dennis, and if you’ve spent any time in working towns, you know the type. Not necessarily inarticulate, but laconic. Not given to big emotional displays. Tough, both physically and psychologically. Big drinker, likes his footy and cricket. Essentially the stereotypical Aussie bloke, to the outside observer identical to thousands of similar.

And yet he has this rich inner life, and as a kid I was lucky enough to be privy to that, and to have it shape my worldview. That’s why Sweet Tooth as a whole and this scene in particular resonates with me. The tribe only sees Jepperd’s outer shell — literalised by his militia tattoo. Gus, little innocent that he is, apprehends Jepperd’s interiority, his capacity for kindness and nurturing, and loves him for it.

That whole tough guy/cute kid thing is a well-established trope — think of best-selling manga series and film adaptation Lone Wolf and Cub, Léon, The Professional, Indiana Jones and Short Round. It’s rarely a parent-child relationship, at least not on a biological level, and that’s key — the idea that someone who isn’t a parent fulfilling that role is a powerful theme for the parentless. In Sweet Tooth’s case, though, it reminded me that I didn’t grow up without a dad; I just didn’t realise who my real father figure was, and what gifts he gave me.


Travis Johnson is an award-winning film critic and cultural commentator. He can generally be found in front of a screen or underwater.
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