The Heroine’s Journey in “Sweet Girl”

Sweet Girl, which sounds more like a reality show about a teenage baker, in fact refers to Rachel (Isabelle Merced), the daughter of Ray (Momoa), a blue-collar family man who unravels after a devastating tragedy. The matriarch of the family dies of cancer after a new drug was abruptly removed from the market, the result of capitalist greed from an evil pharmaceutical company. Ray vows vengeance against those who chose making money over saving lives and with his daughter along for the ride, they go on a perilous journey to find justice.

There’s something admirable in the initial intentions of a film as mass market as this, to confront and critique the amoral practices of big pharma while also serving as a stinging reminder of how the framework of US healthcare routinely crushes the poor (strangely it’s not the first Netflix B-movie to do this with similar references in Fractured, Spenser Confidential and The Ice Road). It’s a surprisingly substantive starting point (and allows for fun cameos from Justin Bartha as a soulless chief executive and Amy Brenneman as an ambitious politician) and takes us on a journey we can happily get behind, ready to cheer for the gnarly downfall of a grossly corrupt system. But thinly etched topicality only gets the film so far (the script is very “I read an article once”) and when the action mechanics kick into gear, it’s yet more of the same with very little to distinguish it from the pack.

Just last week, Netflix’s other man-on-the-run thriller of the month Beckett separated itself by making its protagonist a believably uncomfortable action hero, scrappy and uncoordinated, raising the stakes for us as an audience. But when you cast someone as intimidatingly hulking as Momoa playing a character who boxes in his spare time, we’re never really in doubt as to how a confrontation will go down. There are few surprises in Sweet Girl as Momoa, convincingly fraught, and Merced, confidently building on the comedic charm she showed in Instant Family and Let It Snow, go from one drab set-piece to the next, competently filmed by first-time director Brian Andrew Mendoza but never threatening to quicken the pulse.

But in the final act, just as we think we know where we’re headed, writers Philip Eisner, Gregg Hurwitz and Will Staples throw in a jaw-droppingly deranged twist, which takes us by surprise but only because the film that came before it is then rendered utterly nonsensical as a result. It’s like it was panic-picked last-minute at random, a strange cheat of a revelation that would score big swing points if it wasn’t so poorly embedded within the story that surrounds it. It’s hard to explain just how it then crashes the scenes that come after without spoiling but it relies on so many suspensions of disbelief that a somewhat grounded tale of corporate malfeasance has now flown high up into the sky, into the realm of bizarro fantasy. But I worry that I’m making Sweet Girl sound more fun that it actually is, for a quick WTF moment is not worth the slog it takes to get there and the ungainly mess it leaves after.